On Thursday, November 14, 2013, Northrop Grumman Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President Wes Bush addressed the 2013 TIAA-CREF Higher Education Leadership Conference in New York City. Below are his remarks.

New Partnerships for America’s Future

I’m delighted to be here with you this morning at this important conference, focused on addressing serious solutions to a serious challenge – how we best educate our youth to address a rapidly changing world. 

I’ll say up front that my remarks will have a bit of a STEM focus, as that tends to be my point of reference working in a company with more than 30,000 degreed scientists, engineers and mathematicians.  But the STEM framework is illustrative of the broader challenges.

It’s often said – but worth repeating: The solutions we embrace will determine the success of our future generations; the health of America’s economy; and the standard of living our children will – or will not – enjoy. 

These solutions will impact America’s place in a competitive world that grows more competitive every day.

The stakes are high.

But there is good news.  First, we have been at this for awhile. We’ve learned a few things.  We know that we have to start early with our kids and engage them at every level from grade school to college. 

And once they are in college, we know the job is still not done. The first two years are crucial.  Too many undergraduates who start a curriculum in STEM or other emerging fields have moved out of those disciplines by the end of their second year.

So we know where to focus – but how do we best partner to be effective?

Most business people care deeply about education. We know that our businesses – and the industries they’re a part of – are very dependent on a versatile, well-rounded and innovative talent pool available to us.  

Continuous innovation is fundamental to business success, especially within the high-tech industry.  The coin of the realm is no longer industrial might. It is innovation. And the ability to innovate has got to be as rapid and responsive as the pace of technology itself. 

There is an old test pilot’s adage that says, “You haven’t been lost until you’ve been lost at mach three.”  To fall behind the pace of technology will be like getting lost at mach three.

Once behind, you might never catch up again, and that would be disastrous for our economy, and our nation itself.

To address this imperative of staying ahead, we must work together across the educational, business and other enterprises in our society. No one organization can get the job done alone. 

And this is the aspect of STEM education that I would like to discuss with you today – the importance of partnerships to turn solutions into results that keep the pipeline of innovation flowing.  Again, I’ll be referencing STEM as an example that may be considered more broadly.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the traditional, narrow model of corporate partnership – more philanthropy than accountability. 

Don’t get me wrong: corporate philanthropy is, and will remain, an integral component of the STEM equation.  But, for businesses serious about education, the days of “fire-and-forget” check-writing to colleges or advocacy groups are over. It simply didn’t produce the needed results.

The kind of partnership I suggest to you is strategic. It is involved. It depends on leadership to ensure programs that are innovative, targeted and scalable; well-rounded programs to generate STEM innovators in the best liberal arts traditions. 

I’m talking about programs designed to answer the specified workforce requirements of individual industry sectors, and even specific companies. 

These are workforce requirements that change quickly in response to the pace of technology.  So the programs and partnerships also need to be flexible and responsive. 

There are many great examples of these kinds of partnerships. Some are being discussed at this conference.  There are many examples spanning many industries. I would like to mention the great work of the Business Higher Education Forum – or BHEF – in this regard. 

One of BHEF’s greatest strengths is its ability to establish partnerships with business to find solutions for college-level STEM curriculum and to help address emerging fields such as cyber, data science, and sustainability.

This age we live in is ripe for such new partnerships. It’s an age dominated by an innovation economy that is forcing the traditional business-academia partnership model to evolve. And it is evolving into something far more strategic; something characterized by a deeper engagement on numerous levels.

These partnerships build bonds between corporate and academic leadership – specifically at the c-suite level – to synchronize education and workforce development goals and strategies.

The partnerships also help to focus and to rationalize philanthropic efforts; and this generally results in leveraging the expertise of both the corporate and academic worlds in student development; thereby mobilizing the human capital from both worlds to provide a broad foundation for the efforts.

And the partnerships create strategic alignment to fund research that will provide real-world learning opportunities.

Let me cite a few examples of this class of partnership:

In September, I attended the official launch of the University of Maryland’s ACES program.  ACES stands for Advanced Cybersecurity Experience for Students.

This program is the nation’s first honors program exclusively focused on cybersecurity and it represents an active partnership between Northrop Grumman and the University System of Maryland. 

This partnership began with a focus on the workforce needs of Northrop Grumman, of Maryland, the District of Columbia and northern Virginia. We, and the Washington metro area – have a particular need for cybersecurity professionals. 

So, in concert with the University System of Maryland, a cybersecurity degree program was designed and established.  But this active partnership did not stop there. 

We started with the recognition that more than half of all college students who enroll in STEM studies drop out or switch majors during their first two years of study. 

So, the partnership designed a curriculum to address that. On our end of the partnership, Northrop Grumman agreed to integrate these cyber students into our internship program. And these are paid internships, which can be quite a help to students from all backgrounds. We also make our own Northrop Grumman cyber professionals available to the university as mentors.  

On their end, the University of Maryland changed the teaching model to one more akin to a teaching hospital. 

Students will study in an intensive “living-learning” environment to enhance the team-building skills valued by industry, but not always a focus in college.

And they will begin the lengthy task of gaining their security clearances that are so necessary to cybersecurity employers in our country.   

This kind of partnership is innovative, collaborative and participatory. There is a philanthropic component to it, but it is focused and rationalized to the overall program objectives.

And the activities it funds provide real-world learning opportunities.

It is designed to respond to specific workforce needs, and it engages the human capital of the companies at which these students will soon apply for jobs.

I give a lot of credit to the University of Maryland team, led by Brit Kirwan, for their vision and commitment to making this program a success. And it is not the only such partnership underway.

We’re all familiar with the Sherwin Williams Company.

The partnership they recently established with Case Western Reserve also reflects this partnership strategy in ways similar to that of Northrop Grumman’s partnership with the University System of Maryland.

Sherwin Williams examined their workforce needs and the needs of their industry and coordinated those needs with Case Western. 

What resulted was a program designed to keep STEM students in STEM disciplines, and at the same time, to promote materials and polymer science. 

The program creates a new, interactive foundation course for first-year students that provides an enhanced early experience in the chemistry of materials – all in partnership with industry.   

I also want to mention Eduardo Padron, president of Miami Dade College. Eduardo created an innovative program with Nextera to address energy workforce needs in Florida.

Innovative, tailored partnerships like these are underway in states across the country, including many different kinds of companies and educational institutions. I think they hold great promise.

K-12 education is also critical if college-level programs are to succeed. This is because, as we know, children must be exposed to, and excited by, STEM disciplines as early as possible. 

This speaks to the need for active partnerships with those K-12 STEM organizations established to inspire young students through informal education programs.

Again, those partnerships that work best are collaborative, innovative, and active.  And, as we have learned, the focus need not be confined to students. 

Partnerships can also be utilized to address the needs of, and the need for, great STEM teachers. For example, there is a particular need to focus on teachers at the critical middle school level – the level when so many kids are won or lost to STEM studies. 

Last year marked a new partnership between Northrop Grumman and Conservation International that takes middle school science teachers to the jungles of Cost Rica for two weeks of field work in Environmental Science.

The teachers conduct research and field studies with environmental scientists and bring the information and techniques they learn back to their own classrooms. 

We partnered with Conservation International because of their stated commitment to science-based solutions to environmental challenges.

I think most observers would conclude this type of partnership to be an unusual pairing: an environmental advocacy group with a defense technology company. 

But our objectives align well. We both believe in the value of science-based decision making and in the development of a competent cadre of scientists for the future generations.   

Of course, the business community’s more conventional partnerships also merit mention. The National Math and Science Initiative has done superb work in promoting STEM among our youth and helping STEM teachers do their jobs.  

As one executive from Exxon Mobil – one of the organization’s founding sponsors – said, the purpose of NMSI is to lay a strong foundation for the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Just as different businesses have different workforce needs, so are different STEM organizations often tailored to different demographics. For example, “Great Minds in STEM” targets the development of Hispanic students in the STEM disciplines by bringing business into the student development process.

These kinds of partnership efforts to reach out to diverse students are crucial to our nation’s future.

In the Northeast we see a business – academic partnership designed to address this issue. Through BHEF, the University of Massachusetts has partnered with the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership – an organization of businesses that includes Raytheon, Suffolk Construction, and others. 

The program they developed strengthens partnerships between several UMass campuses, community colleges, and Massachusetts companies to increase minority representation in STEM disciplines. It’s ambitious, seeking to double the number of STEM degrees to minority and under-represented students over the next three years.  

Fortunately, there are many worthy STEM associations focused on diversity, which were established to make this easier. And partnering with them makes good business sense. 

I mentioned Great Minds in STEM. But there are also professional associations such as the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering; the Society of Women Engineers; the National Society of Black Engineers, in addition to the list of historically black colleges and universities.  These are organizations full of passionate, committed professionals.

And I am delighted with the focus I see in higher education leadership to build diversity in STEM graduates. Leaders like Freemen Hrabowski, the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He leads a university that has developed a very diverse STEM student body.

Actively partnering with visionaries like Dr. Hrabowski, and organizations like the ones I named, will pay large workforce development dividends for any company in both the short and long term.

So we know partnerships can work, and we understand the imperative.

Our economic viability relies on continuous innovation and a strong science and engineering foundation.    

We all know how intractable the STEM problem has been these many years. But it needn’t be a permanent affliction. Decline, be it national, economic or corporate, is a choice, not a fate.  We have options and we have tools. 

And one of the most powerful is that of the partnership. Partnerships that are collaborative, innovative, proactive and strategic.

To succeed, these partnerships must address all levels of the problem: K-12; colleges and universities; the role of diversity; and teachers as well as students.

And they must embrace every concerned community, be it academia, the private sector, government, think tanks or advocacy groups.

These are partnerships that can break the logjam. These are the kind that can make a difference. 

The old model – the partnership of the checkbook – doesn’t fly anymore. The new partnership model still requires investment and corporate philanthropy. But it also depends on corporate leadership and human capital.

I encourage you all to take a look at your organizations.

How can we work together to create a new, dynamic, well-rounded and capable workforce? 

What kind of partnerships can you envision that will allow your colleges and universities to educate STEM and other professionals in the best liberal arts traditions – graduates who are prepared and equipped for the innovation-dependent jobs of your local economies and across the country?

I encourage you to look for opportunities to partner with organizations like your own. But I especially encourage you to look for opportunities to partner with organizations that may be nothing like your own.

People are often surprised to learn that a defense company has partnered with an environmental organization. But in the unconventional, we often find the greatest opportunities, simply because they have gone unnoticed.

Thank you for being here. And thank you for your commitment to address the serious challenges that impact our future.