Q&A with Eric Spiegel

The president and CEO of Siemens USA discusses energy efficiency, Big Data, the need for broader STEM education, and Abraham Lincoln.

Eric Spiegel listens to remarks by Steve Clemons, who moderated the Rollins Winter Park Institute event on March 19. (Photo by Scott Cook) Eric Spiegel listens to remarks by Steve Clemons, who moderated the Rollins Winter Park Institute event on March 19. (Photo by Scott Cook)

Just because you’re the president and chief executive officer of a multibillion-dollar company doesn’t mean you’re all business all the time. There’s plenty of room for humor, as Siemens USA’s Eric Spiegel demonstrated before the mostly business-casual crowd that filled Tiedtke Concert Hall for Thursday evening’s Rollins Winter Park Institute presentation.

In something of a technology face-off during one of many exchanges that drew laughter from the audience, moderator Steve Clemons, Washington editor at large for The Atlantic, called attention to his Fitbit, pointing out that he’d reached his 10,000 steps for that day. “And you’re wearing a watch,” he said to Spiegel, a former left tackle for Harvard’s football team. Spiegel replied, “I don’t want to be lying there in bed at night worrying about the 2,000 steps I didn’t take.”

Spiegel’s Rollins College connections run deep—his daughter is a graduate, and his son currently attends. Understandable, then, that his talk, “Innovating America’s New Middle Class,” included much advice for the “group most in trouble,” 21-to-27-year-olds who are unemployed or underemployed, as well as academic and business leaders. As the “old world” transforms into the new world of Big Data, Spiegel says, the message is: “Get on board. Change is coming.”

Among the questions that must be answered, Spiegel says, are, “How do we teach young people the skills they need? What role will liberal arts graduates play?” That discussion, he says, “needs to start at places like Rollins.”

In answers to questions submitted before his Rollins appearance, Spiegel addresses how best to meet the challenges of a world undergoing a seismic technological shift and how Siemens will continue to play a leading role in advancing innovation on the global stage.

Dixie Tate: The topic of your presentation for Rollins Winter Park Institute, “Innovating America’s New Middle Class,” sounds an optimistic note in the chorus of not-so-optimistic news reports about America’s middle class. With more than 56,000 patents to its credit, however, Siemens seems well-positioned to mount such a challenge. How will America’s “new middle class” differ from today’s?

Eric Spiegel: The digital economy is changing the nature of work for everyone and what we need to do to prepare for the future. Software is the heart of the digital economy. What we are living through right now is a software revolution that is collapsing the boundaries between the real and online worlds—turning the global economy into a virtual economy.

More and more businesses and industries are being run by software and delivered as an online service. One of the biggest changes we are seeing is that jobs that we’ve long thought of as traditional jobs from the old economy and that don’t require advanced skills are becoming technology jobs. It’s clear this transformation is changing the basic nature of work—not just for those we typically think of as science and technology jobs, but for every job.

At a time when the information age is enabling so much innovation at the intersection of different disciplines—be it engineering and design, or chemistry and fashion, or physics and architecture—success depends on fluency in science and math. None of these jobs are what you would typically think of as STEM-fields. Yet today, all of them require more STEM training than they did even five years ago. These skills will be the price of entry into America’s new middle class.

DT: If you could spend an evening chatting with one of the great innovators responsible for moving technology forward, who would that be and why?

ES: Abraham Lincoln. Not only was he a U.S. President and emancipator, but what many people may not know is that he was also an inventor with great enthusiasm for cutting-edge technology. In fact, he is the only U.S. President to hold a patent. Lincoln, living in a time of great change, invention, and expansion in the U.S., had a deep curiosity to know how things worked. Jason Emerson, author of Lincoln the Inventor, notes that Lincoln “never came across a machine or invention or scientific idea that he did not stop to investigate, both physically and mentally.” Lincoln not only moved technology forward, but also moved our nation forward.

Clemons interviews Spiegel on stage in front of the audience in Tiedtke Concert Hall during Thursday’s event. (Photo by Scott Cook) Clemons interviews Spiegel on stage in front of the audience in Tiedtke Concert Hall during Thursday’s event. (Photo by Scott Cook)

DT: It’s been six years since publication of the book you co-authored, Energy Shift: Game-Changing Options for Fueling the Future. How are we doing? If you were to give America a grade for energy production and efficiency, what would it be? What do we need to do to step up our game?

ES: We have some obvious pluses and minuses. Many of the ideas from 2008 have not moved very far as we never agreed on a national policy on climate change. So many of the technologies for renewable energy have not moved as quickly as was predicted back then, and ideas like carbon capture and sequestration for coal never really moved forward. The nuclear renaissance has not happened either.

On the other hand, the opportunity for extracting unconventional gas moved much more quickly than expected, and as a result we have reduced overall carbon emissions in the U.S. by burning more gas and less coal. On the transportation side, we have improved by making the vehicle fleet more fuel-efficient, but the implementation of hybrids and electric vehicles has been much slower than was forecasted.

DT: You said during a Washington Post Live discussion in 2013, “America has a training gap. Until we put the burden on those who train rather than those who need to be trained, we’ll never solve this problem.” Siemens is a big believer in working with colleges and universities to develop a skilled work force. Can you tell us about some of the successes Siemens has had in this regard?

ES: Siemens is a national leader in the effort to address America’s training gap—matching students who need jobs with employers who need a well-trained, technically adept labor force. One of the things Siemens has done to train workers for highly skilled, well-paying advanced manufacturing jobs is create public, academic, and corporate partnerships—using the German-style apprenticeship model as a guide.

We partnered with Central Piedmont Community College to develop a 3½-year apprenticeship program in Charlotte, North Carolina. Students in this program attend classes and work for Siemens as interns during their breaks at our advanced gas and steam turbine plant in Charlotte.

There is no state funding for this training. We are paying for the program ourselves. [Students] will graduate with a mechatronics technology degree that combines expertise in the specialties of mechanical, computer, electronic, software control, and system design engineering. In other words: precisely the training they need to run our most advanced technology. Once they graduate, they will be Siemens employees.

We are currently in the process of adding additional apprenticeship programs at our manufacturing facilities in Sacramento and Atlanta.

Companies like Siemens are uniquely positioned to create technical skills training—like the curriculum at Central Piedmont—that leads to high-paying jobs because we know the precise combination of science, technology, engineering, and math skills necessary to run our technology.

An audience member asks Spiegel a question. (Photo by Scott Cook) An audience member asks Spiegel a question. (Photo by Scott Cook)

DT: How important is it for a global giant such as Siemens to maintain and grow those sorts of community connections?

ES: We are proud to be part of the local fabric of communities in every one of the 50 states, providing jobs for approximately 50,000 Americans.

Siemens has a sizeable footprint in Florida—especially in Orlando. We have about 4,800 employees in the state and nearly 4,000 of those employees are based in the Orlando metro area. Our energy business has a large presence here with a hub just down the road—and we recently opened up a wind service technician training facility in Orlando.

Beyond our own footprint here, we recognize the value of being highly integrated into the Central Florida community. Both major hospital systems have our equipment. We have a strategic alliance with Disney. We were selected to provide the locomotives and passenger coaches for All Aboard Florida.

Last year, Siemens partnered with Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer to launch the Central Florida leg of a campaign called “The Baton Pass” that raised funds for Stand Up to Cancer. For each pass of the baton, Siemens donated one dollar—ultimately raising $1 million to support innovative cancer research. As part of the Central Florida leg, the Baton was passed all across Orlando, including City Hall, UF Health Cancer Center – Orlando Health, Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, and Siemens Energy.

DT: STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics) crops up in most conversations about education these days. Where do you think America stands on the world stage? Are our students competitive? What, if anything, still needs to be done?

ES: We often talk about improving STEM education as if it’s a single challenge. It’s not. It’s actually two distinct and separate challenges, both of which are having and will continue to have a direct effect on the ability of new college graduates to find jobs.

On one hand, we need more students to make a career out of science, technology, engineering, and math. On the other hand, in today’s digital economy, we need to create better science, technology, and math skills in all of our graduates, particularly liberal arts students.

If we can’t convince more young people to make careers out of science, technology, engineering, and math, then jobs and innovation will go elsewhere. So, that’s the first challenge: We need to inspire more students to choose STEM careers. But at the same time, there is another challenge that nobody ever talks about, but which may be just as important to the long-term health of our economy: We don’t just need to improve math and science for math and science professionals. America needs better science, technology, and math skills in all of our graduates.

Spiegel addresses the audience. (Photo by Scott Cook) Spiegel addresses the audience. (Photo by Scott Cook)

DT: Whether it be energy or health care—primary focal points of Siemens’ technological know-how—what do you see as the biggest technological challenges in America’s future?

ES: In today’s digital economy, every text, tweet, touch, and click is recorded forever as a permanent record in the memory banks of powerful computers across the world. They sit alongside every electrical meter read, shipping container moved, strikeout recorded, and Amazon package delivered.

Our digital economy has a name for all of this information: Big Data. But there is a reason why Big Data is also called “Unstructured Data.” There’s not much to see when you look at it with the naked eye.

But when you crunch all of this information through super high-speed computers, guided by super-advanced algorithms, connected across global computer networks, and shaped by talented people with the tremendous analytical skills and critical thinking ability […] something magical happens. It reveals trends and connections and insights that have never been available to us before.

Figuring out how to collect, monitor, and analyze [Big Data]—and apply the resulting insights to business decisions—is one of the biggest technological challenges we face. But it also poses one of the most significant opportunities: to transform the economy to make the U.S. more competitive, and also to improve wages and the standard of living for all Americans—this can be a major driver of America’s new middle class.

DT: Siemens USA has more than $22 billion in revenue and some 50,000 employees in the U.S. What is your favorite part of the job?

ES: Werner von Siemens also established a tradition that is still adhered to in the company today. The leading themes of Siemens’ corporate history have been innovation and a strong focus on customers. We have incredibly talented people working at Siemens and significant technology and engineering capabilities. Seeing these two things come together to develop world-class products and solutions for our customers is very satisfying.

Tiedtke Concert Hall was filled with members of the Central Florida community for the Rollins Winter Park Institute event. (Photo by Scott Cook) Tiedtke Concert Hall was filled with members of the Central Florida community for the Rollins Winter Park Institute event. (Photo by Scott Cook)