- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In the next decade, America faces a shortage of scientists and engineers. Today, 2.1 million veterans have actively served for at least 30 days since Sept. 11, 2001. The two trends are not unrelated. Many vets can meet America’s future science and engineering needs - with dedicated help.

The National Academies of Science and others have warned for years of a coming shortage of scientists and engineers. Many will retire in the next decade, and not enough U.S. students want to take their place, let alone meet a growing need. Yet, as President Obama has stated, “Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before.”

Vets are a good bet. From the ranks of World War II veterans came 91,000 scientists and 450,000 engineers, to include 14 Nobel Prize winners. They, along with others, produced technological innovations that enabled “the American Century.”

The potential of today’s veterans was recognized by the National Science Foundation in a 2009 report: “Post-9/11 veterans offer the nation’s engineering and science employers a diverse and pre-qualified pool of future talent.” As recruits, the vast majority were “high school graduates with strong cognitive aptitudes. … They know how to work in teams and how to lead.”

As the report further states, many post-Sept. 11 vets are “interested in technical careers and equipped to succeed.” Thirty-five percent of enlisted personnel are in electronics, communications, medical or other technical fields. Those in combat arms operate such systems as unmanned aerial vehicles, telemetry displays and radar. Also, when vets return to school, “they will generally bring a sense of purpose that non-veteran classmates may lack,” the report says.

I saw it in my own life. I was a decent high school student but unfocused in my short college career, which culminated in a grade-point average of 1.36. That changed after I enlisted in the Air Force. That gave me discipline and focus. Working on reconnaissance aircraft in Korea and Europe, I gave my all. There were no second chances for our pilots. And, as an aircraft electrician, I became confident I could be an electrical engineer. I returned to college with commitment, graduating with a 3.96 GPA.

Many think the post-Sept. 11 GI bill will help vets become scientists and engineers and achieve other occupations - and it can. It provides greater means than previous GI benefits. However, despite the growing need for scientists and engineers, vets have few clear paths to those fields and often face obstacles. I and two other veteran classmates went to naval laboratories and NASA after graduation. But that was more by chance than design.

Dedicated efforts should be made to help veterans pursue science and engineering. The Defense Department - which needs scientists and engineers - should make military personnel aware of opportunities in these fields before they leave the service. That helps them plan. My veteran classmates and I took classes while in the service. Sadly, most vets do not enter technical fields immediately after active duty, despite interest and abilities.

Vets also need veteran/military-friendly colleges. While assigned to Tyndall Air Force Base, I was fortunate to attend Florida State University at Panama City. It helped vets and military personnel. When duty didn’t permit us to complete course requirements on time, we were given flexibility. Other vets face similar demands, including Reserve call-ups.

Additionally, science and engineering agencies should have outreach programs for veterans, providing paid internships, research and service for scholarships. Such financial support may be needed to supplement post-Sept. 11 GI benefits because many vets have families. Half of active-duty military are married, and 60 percent have families.

America once needed its sons and daughters to be war fighters. Now it needs many of them to become scientists and engineers because of their potential. America can’t afford to leave it to chance that vets will find their way to these critical career fields. Government, industry and academia should have programs that guide them. It’s not just a matter of serving those who served. It’s a matter of serving America again.

Jonas Wildharber, a former U.S. Air Force technical sergeant, is an electronics engineer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Ind.

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