More than 40 major companies have agreed to double the number of engineering internships they offer in a bid to help universities train more people for jobs that require math and science skills, President Barack Obama's jobs and competitiveness council announced on Wednesday.
The commitment from high-tech, health care, financial and other companies creates about 6,300 new engineering internships. It's part of a short-term goal to graduate 10,000 more American engineers each year, bringing the total to about 130,000 annual graduates.
Obama's competitiveness council hopes the new internships will help engineering schools improve abysmal retention rates. Forty percent of science and math majors drop out, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.
Some high-tech companies would like to hire engineers in the U.S. but are exporting jobs to Asia because of a shortage of qualified Americans, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said.
"We need engineers. We need scientists," Chu said. "This is going to be at the heart of how the United States is going to remain competitive."
The White House announced Wednesday that Obama would lay out his jobs plan in an address to Congress next week.
Chu and other Obama administration officials were in Oregon to solicit ideas from business executives and engineering school deans in an event at Portland State University. They were told that engineering is a misunderstood profession, and that the K-12 education system is letting down many would-be engineers before they even reach college.
The lack of interest from qualified American students means universities here are educating engineers from other countries, many of whom struggle to get authorization to work in the U.S. when they graduate, said Paul Otellini, chairman and chief executive of Intel Corp., and a member of Obama's jobs council.
"We have plenty of spots, we just need to get more of the population into those spots," Otellini said.
Experts said young people don't grasp what it means to be an engineer, and it doesn't help that scientists are often depicted in pop culture as nerdy and anti-social. They said the general public should be reminded that engineers solve daily problems and build things that improve people's lives.
Improving math and science education, even for young children in elementary school, can ensure that students aren't turned off from math and are ready to tackle challenging engineering courses when they reach college.
"Engineering in itself is cool, it's tangible," said Leah Jamieson, dean of the College of Engineering at Purdue University. "Kids like building things, understanding things."
The Republican National Committee released a statement saying Obama's job creation efforts are "all rhetoric and no results."