PORTLAND, OREGON—A group of U.S. companies has promised  to create thousands of internships for engineering students as a way to increase the number of U.S. citizens who earn engineering degrees and enter the profession. Some 50 companies, including Intel, Facebook, MasterCard, and Caterpillar, committed additional resources during a meeting here yesterday of the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness  that explored ideas on how the private sector can help boost the supply of U.S. engineers.
The increase in internships "is a tremendous boon for students," said panelist S. Shankar Sastry, dean of the college of engineering at the University of California (UC), Berkeley. "And it's scalable: If 50 companies join in today, you can expect many more to follow." The corporate promises, if fulfilled, could result in as many as 6300 new internships starting early next year.
"We need engineers, we need scientists," said Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who led the listening session along with Intel CEO Paul Otellini. "This is at the heart of how the United States is going to stay competitive." To Otellini, it's also a matter of national security. "We're not having any trouble filling all the engineering seats in U.S. schools," said Otellini. "The problem is we're having trouble filling them with students who have a right to work here."
Only about 40% of students who declare an interest in engineering as freshmen wind up majoring in the field. More internships should help programs retain students, particularly women and minorities, who transfer out of engineering at the highest rates, says Chu. Indeed, women are much more likely to stick with engineering if they have good mentors and hands-on experience, says panel member Telle Whitney, president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.
More internship slots will also make it possible for students to earn and learn at the same time, says Sastry, an appealing combination for students on a tight budget. Internships pay an average of $10,000 over a summer, and panelists said that they give students an edge academically as well as when they begin to look for jobs.
"Internships are catalytic because the students come back from the internship with fabulous skills, including the softer skills like communications and people skills," says Fiona Doyle, professor in the department of material science and engineering at UC Berkeley. "And professors see that suddenly students are motivated and they have very good study habits."
The internship pledge is part of a broader White House effort to foster public-private partnerships that stimulate job creation and innovation. It is expected to be one theme in an 8 September speech by President Barack Obama to a joint session of Congress that lays out his agenda for rejuvenating the economy.