As Indian immigrants growing up in East Texas, Manoj Babu and his sister were encouraged to pursue careers in science and math. Forget sports or music. They attended STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) competitions. In fact, Babu jokes that he may have actually disappointed his father by becoming an engineer instead of a doctor. But today, as Dean of the Manufacturing, Engineering, and Transportation at Gateway Technical College, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, he finds himself in a similar role to that of his immigrant parents. His mission: To get American high school graduates excited about STEM fields so they can meet the growing workforce needs of American companies.
“Every employer I talk to, they’re asking me where the students are that have graduated in a science field or a technical field or a math field,” Babu says. “They have high retirement coming on, and they don’t have individuals with that talent coming in to take those positions.”
Founded in 1911, Gateway is the oldest technical college in the United States. Yet, just a few years after celebrating its centennial, Babu fears that U.S. students are not showing enough interest in STEM or technical education to provide firms with the talent they need to stay in America. To help address this issue, Babu regularly visits local high schools to talk about the wealth of jobs available for workers with a foundation in STEM education. Today’s advanced, or automated, manufacturing, for example, requires that factory-floor workers have a basic aptitude in simulation equipment, computer machining, and computer diagnostics.
“For whatever reason, there’s a thought process going on in American homes that these are substandard jobs,” Babu says. “But these jobs are amazing. These sites are hospital clean. You can easily make six figures.”
The same deficit of U.S.-born STEM graduates also means that colleges and businesses rely on immigrants to fill workforce gaps. Research from the National Center for Education Statistics has found that foreign students are far more likely than American students to pursue graduate-level STEM degrees. In 2014, more than a quarter of STEM master’s degrees and a third of STEM PhDs awarded by U.S. universities went to students in the country on temporary visas. Immigrants also fill 21.7 percent of STEM jobs even though they make up just 13.2 percent of the population.
I’ve been in businesses where they’ve had to offshore workers because they couldn’t find the talent here.
However, despite the large role international students play in STEM disciplines, many find it difficult to remain in the country long term. This is one reason why Babu supports immigration reforms that would help American-trained international students with needed skills to stay. “Immigration reform is necessary if we are to provide U.S. firms with the workers they need to operate in the United States,” Babu says, “I’ve been in businesses where they’ve had to offshore workers because they couldn’t find the talent here. It is our responsibility to reverse that trend through the optimization of our human capital.”
Babu was born in Kerala, a village in Southern India, and was 7 years old when his family moved to America, in 1979. His mother, who trained as a nurse in India, took part in a U.S. visa program designed to recruit medical personnel to the United States after the Vietnam War. The family of four settled in Lufkin, Texas. Babu, like many immigrant children, assimilated faster than his parents. “I played tennis, but I don’t think my father ever came to an event,” Babu says. “I think if my dad were to ever see Michael Jordan he would walk past him and say, ‘Is there someone we can talk to in the engineering group?’”
Pushed by that singular mindset, Babu earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Texas A&M University and followed it later with an MBA from Marquette University and a PhD in management from Case Western Reserve University, focused on designing sustainable systems. He worked for a decade as an engineer at and also taught evening college engineering courses. In 2013, Gateway Technical College hired him as a dean. The school wanted someone who could bring an industry perspective.
Now Babu regularly tells young people about the security and freedom that a two-year, technical-school degree affords. While some manufacturers will offer on-the-job training to workers with little to no education, “the problem is those workers can’t go anywhere else. Once they leave that job they have nothing to fall back on,” he says. “If they want to move on to the next level, they need to be able to complete a degree and have a transferable skill.”