By Karen Jacobs

ATLANTA (Reuters) - U.S. aerospace and defense
companies are stepping up support for educational programs in
hope of encouraging students to pursue technical careers to
help replace an expected flood of worker retirements.

Companies are sponsoring student robotics competitions,
forming partnerships with technical schools and calling for
higher national education standards in an effort to bring new
urgency to the coming U.S. shortage of workers trained in
science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

"If we can work on retention and we can work on the
excitement of STEM or engineering, then we can change the
equation," William Swanson, chief executive of Raytheon Co
, said in an interview.

A 2010 study by Aviation Week magazine found that, among
companies with more than 100,000 workers, 19 percent of
employees are now at retirement age. That figure will jump to
more than 30 percent in 2012 and nearly 40 percent by 2014, the
publication said.

But with only about 70,000 bachelor's degrees in
engineering awarded in the United States annually, according to
a 2008 report from the Aerospace Industries Association trade
group, there are not enough graduates to replenish the
workforce.

US CITIZENSHIP

The problem hits home for aerospace and defense companies
especially, as many engineering jobs in the field are only open
to U.S. citizens because of security requirements.

"I have a lot of positions, but a lot of times I may not be
able to fill them because I don't have U.S. citizens," said
Lisa Kollar, executive director of career services at
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, one of the top U.S.
schools for aerospace recruitment.

Raytheon's Swanson said the shortfall in
engineering-trained talent could pose a national security
danger because it can limit the ability of the United States to
be innovative and compete on the world stage.

"I have nothing against the service industry," Swanson
said. "I just don't see our country being a great country if
we're flipping hamburgers and selling coffee."

Raytheon is targeting students at the middle-school level
as research shows that is when children lose interest in
science and math. The missile maker created MathMovesU, a
program that includes an interactive website, contests, live
events, scholarships and tutoring to help send the message that
math and science are cool and can lead to interesting careers.

Aerospace companies are also calling for better training
and pay for math and science teachers.

"The gestation period for fixing this may be three, four,
five, 10 years out before you start to see the curve change,"
Swanson said.

Clay Jones, the CEO of avionics maker Rockwell Collins Inc
, said if there is not enough U.S. technical talent to
meet the need, aerospace companies may have no choice but to go
after more workers in places that are producing STEM-trained
personnel, such as India and China.

Five percent of U.S. bachelor's degrees are in engineering,
compared with 20 percent in Asia, according to the Aerospace
Industries Association report.

"It's not so much that the source of supply is not there,"
Jones said. "It's that the source of supply in the United
States may not be there."

Rockwell Collins sponsors U.S. competitions such as FIRST
Robotics and contests that allow students to assemble rockets
and design cities to provide hands-on engineering experience.

"Our involvement in these kinds of programs is so critical
because it brings home what it means to be an engineer," Jones
said. "That's the critical element we hope will be part of the
catalyst to solving this problem."
(Reporting by Karen Jacobs; editing by Andre Grenon)