Shawn Wright| Crain’s Detroit Business
Joe Welch bought his first car in the 6th grade.
But it wasn’t to drive.
The pre-teen Welch saved money from his paper route to buy the automobile with the sole purpose to dismantle the insides, see how the motor worked, and then put it back together. The car got him through high school; the hands-on knowledge paid off for a lifetime.
Welch’s curiosity in science and technology became a mainstay throughout his life, earning a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Kansas. Currently, Welch serves as chairman, president and CEO of Novi-based ITC Holdings Corp., the largest independent U.S. owner of high-voltage power lines. ITC and its subsidiaries span across seven states.
Although Welch was interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at a young age, he’s personally found a large gap between students, young and old, who aren’t interested or prepared to meet the in-demand STEM-related workforce.
Welch sat down with Shawn Wright, a Crain’s Custom Media writer, to offer some perspectives on STEM education, its importance to ITC and what can be done to bridge the gap.
For ITC, how important is STEM education?
STEM education, basically, is everything. The production, transmission, distribution of electricity, as common as we think of it, is very technical. … Today, it’s like an ever-evolving process. It’s not static at all, it’s very dynamic. Getting people who are state-of-the-art with degrees in the STEM curriculum is absolutely critical, not only for today’s operations but for tomorrow’s, even more so.
What are some of the company’s immediate needs, in terms of hiring skilled employees? Types of jobs?
The thing that is kind of an irony is, of course, you’d say we’re really looking for engineers, and we’re always constantly looking for engineers. But as the digital technology has advanced, people have left by the wayside, power engineering. There are very few schools left that actually produce power engineers. Of course, we’ve worked really hard with those schools to keep people interested in power engineering because it’s kind of like the old dinosaur that everybody thinks is going away. But every house, and all those computers that everyone loves to work on are still powered by electricity. And some of us still have to get it to them.
What are some of the challenges ITC faces with finding skilled STEM educated employees?
The stuff we’ve found, at least on the power side, is the fact that there’s such a void in the hiring. The power industry really grew after World War II. It then hit, what I call, a semi-stagnant spot in the mid-1970s, where growth really tapered off and power plants were no longer being built. If you look at the transmission grid, which we operate, it really hasn’t been advanced since the ’70s. Then we come into the 21st century and we’re seeing those power plants are aged, the equipment there is very aged, and the workforce is very aged.
In between there, the number of power engineers that were turned out were very minimal. We face the fact that we need to get more power engineers graduated, and it’s not just for ITC, but it’s for the whole industry. We’ve been very active in that. What you, basically, do a lot of the times is take an electrical or mechanical engineer and get them to start to learn the additional things that they need to be relevant to the power industry.
Are there any specific groups or learning institutions ITC works with for STEM?
We’re working with Michigan Tech, which had an ongoing program in power. We work very actively with them. More recently, and locally, with Lawrence Tech. I had gone to them and we’ve worked kind of hand in hand on them getting a power discipline re-instituted. It’s been so much so that I’ve been put on the board of trustees, along with some other people from the industry, to help them get that program going forward.
What do you feel other employers can do to help further STEM?
The biggest thing I also do is sit on the (Business Leaders for Michigan) business roundtable, which started off as a group of the Fortune 500 companies. They are looking exclusively at furthering STEM and all of the things that it takes to get people interested in STEM, from basically kindergarten through graduation from a university. These are companies like General Electric, Boeing, Mobil Exxon. There is a huge shortage of STEM-certified people. At the business roundtable, they estimate there are 50,000 jobs in the United States unfilled annually because of a lack of STEM graduates.
That’s why you see such a huge, huge emphasis on immigration reform because we’re educating a lot of STEM-qualified people, but they’re from a foreign country. Once they graduate, we send them back. And we’re not getting people in the United States interested enough in it to pursue it. As a result of that, we’re not getting the advancements in those businesses. They’re locating where they have the graduates to support their work.
How do you feel the schools (K-12 through college) are doing to push out STEM-related graduates?
Starting way down in the educational stream, and I’m talking about the 3rd and 4th grade, we see a departure from educational requirements that we normally see in foreign countries as to what we see here. By the time these people graduate from high school, the vast majority are not qualified even to start basic STEM core curriculums at college. So, usually, after they graduated from high school with their full degree, there is probably 18 months of preliminary work that they have to do before they can even enter the basic classes needed for engineering.
As a result, most people don’t want to spend the extra time. It’s a lot of hard work. We lose them, here in this country early, and we can’t get them interested in it. We’ve got to make some major changes. Well past 60 percent of the students who are interested in a STEM degree are not qualified to enter college in that discipline. It’s a huge number, and it’s sad.
We will face a lot of criticism when you compare the amount of money we’re spending in education in the United States to our foreign competitors. We spend more and achieve less. There are very few countries on the face of the Earth that spend more on education per student than we do. We can go into a whole debate on why that is, but the fact is we’ve got to improve that for the sake of our kids.
In 2012, ITC made a $500,000 donation to the Michigan Science Center. What prompted the large gift?
I’m an engineer and I have four children that I’m raising, three daughters and a son. I’ve been pretty hands-off on trying to influence them as to what they wanted to do in their life. I thought that was their choice. My son, who’s the youngest, is a good student and a very conscientious young man. But when he’s in high school, he still doesn’t know what he wants to do. He didn’t have a glimmer of what he wanted to be in his life.
But then he went to the first robotics competition in his high school. From that time on, he was totally turned on to STEM. Once you realize that it’s the hands-on knowledge, the excitement of using science to have fun that really gets these kids turned on, then you come to places like a science foundation and science museums.
These are places where young kids can go in and see science, they can touch it. They get excited about it. You see them, almost uncontrollably, doing things like little kids will do. You realize how critical that is. Then, you tie this boring math, chemistry and physics back to this thing they were having fun with. All of sudden, you have something that’s hands-on.
The science center was a great resource. It was a shame that, due to the economic downturn, it was going to go away in an area where we needed it the worst. We were fortunate enough to be a great help. Hopefully, we served as an impetus for other people to step up.
The people who are running that institution are absolutely excited about STEM and helping tie it to hands-on learning, which is what we need today. That Michigan Science Center is really important to me, and I hope it never falls on hard times again.
As someone who holds an electrical engineering degree, what is your personal view on STEM education?
It was experiences for me that started with my first Erector Set, disassembling the car in 6th grade, that led me to become an engineer. And it’s the same for my son. I realize that those pieces all have to fit together. I tell people that first robotics competition is absolutely critical because that’s where a whole bunch of people, who aren’t going to be first-team all-state in (high school sports), get to celebrate and show their wares.
We have a society that doesn’t celebrate the achievements of young adults and kids in science, math and technology. As a result, there is no excitement for it. And it shows with the result of no one wanting to do it.
What else is ITC doing to help bridge the STEM gap?
We have very sophisticated controls on our system. We have to take these people and train them. These are people who have to have math skills to go through the training. We partner with community and junior colleges to get them a two-year degree that qualifies them so we can get them in our field.
It’s just a different ballgame; the 21st century is not the 20th century. The requirements are different. Even with the people who we would not think are college bound, to do what we consider the basics, still require more education. That education is in STEM.
We have to do a better job at the early ages to take the child and young person who isn’t going to be the future engineer, but is going to be the future technician or serviceman. These are high-skilled, high-paying jobs. We need to get them excited about it. They’re not going to be in the advanced calculus classes, but they will be well down the road in their trigonometry and their algebra.
Do you realize, for industry to provide all of that education, what a huge burden that is on us? How much better it would be if we could just get our educational system to perform to the level we need it to, so the industry in the United States can concentrate on what it needs to do to keep America’s wheels turning?