The head of the world's largest retailer has said that America's lack of engineers is scuppering its hope of achieving a revival of its manufacturing sector.

Mike Duke, president and CEO of WalMart, said at a recent manufacturing conference that a worsening shortage of engineers in the US as well as a decline in the overall quality of  STEM education will make it hard for the sector to achieve a resurgence.

WalMart CEO Mike Duke

WalMart CEO Mike Duke

The shortage in skilled and experienced engineers is particularly acute in the fields of industrial and mechanical engineering – the very fields which pertain directly to the manufacturing sector.

These difficulties are being further exacerbated by the aging of the workforce and the departure of experienced personnel, leaving companies unable to fill engineering positions as long-term employees reach the retirement threshold.

“As a country, not just WalMart, we have a shortage in that area,” said Duke during a panel discussion at the WalMart US Manufacturing Summit in Orlando, Florida. “We need more science and more engineers to help us…build the foundation for a manufacturing resurgence.”

These sentiments appear strange coming from the head of the company responsible for spearheading the outsourcing trend which led to the demise of much of America’s manufacturing sector, and its wholesale relocation overseas to developing economies such as China.

Duke, however, who has a background in industrial engineering, reiterated his belief that the US should remain the party responsible for the design work which underpins the manufacturing process.

“I have a personal bias, being an engineer myself, but we also need those that can design the factories, design the processes, the technology,” he said.

Duke’s concerns about the impact of a lack of engineers and skilled employees on US manufacturing is vindicated by the findings of a recent survey by the Manufacturing Institute – a Washington DC-based industry body. In that survey, 42 per cent of manufacturing executives reported that their companies were being “negatively affected” by either shortages or skill deficiencies in engineering support staff.

Much of the problem is the result of defects in the training given to budding engineers, including inadequate curricula and a want of real-world experience among teaching staff.

Shahrukh Irani, director of IE researcher with Swiss manufacturer Hoerbiger and formerly an engineering teacher at Ohio State University, told Industry Market Trends that university engineering curricula need to be completely revamped.

“The curricula of today have to be reimagined from the ground up,” Irani said. “If we are going to turn around manufacturing, we have to have IEs who also know computer science, robotics, wireless, mobile computing and flexible manufacturing. They have to know how to set up and run a factory.”