Q&A: GM Engineering VP John Calabrease


DETROIT — John Calabrese began his career with General Motors as an intern in 1979 and now serves as one of the leading advocates for GM’s science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, educational outreach. With responsibility for global vehicle engineering and global technology operations, he takes personally the pursuit of the best and brightest of tomorrow’s technology leaders.

Calabrese is the key GM executive for Virginia Tech and serves on the Advisory Board to Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering. He chaired the Leadership Committee for the 2013 SAE Foundation STEM Celebration and is a board member for the Engineering Society of Detroit and the Michigan Science Center.

Q: You’ve spent most of your career in vehicle engineering. Why is advocating for the development of future engineers so important? What is the biggest challenge the industry is facing?

Advocating for future engineers is not only vital to GM and the automotive industry, but also the entire global business platform. Nearly 80 percent of future jobs have some component of STEM education such as problem-solving, problem-posing and design.

The biggest challenge the industry is facing is stopping the leaky pipeline of talent we have, particularly in the U.S., by developing a pool of highly skilled and creative innovators to carry it into the rapidly evolving future. To achieve this, we need to give students experiences not just equations, and show them how exciting engineering and math-based science can be when you apply basic principles.

Q: What is the goal of your STEM education outreach advocacy? 

My goal is to ignite the interest and advocacy of the entire ecosystem of support, which consists of government officials, educators, communities, parents and industry members. This issue is not fiscal, it is focus and alignment based. If we could combine the energy and interest in making positive strides in STEM education, we could truly make a difference.

GM is more than just a consumer of STEM. We are responsible for communicating our needs for the future generations. We are doing our part in contributing to talent development because we are involved in outreach programming from nearly cradle to professional and also with developing STEM educators through various corporate and industry partnerships.

Q: Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder recently declared October STEM month in the state. What role does government leadership play in improving the STEM education outlook?

We need more government leaders and government bodies to take these types of stands to encourage the majority to support local initiatives. What Governor Snyder did was help us raise the awareness level, and we need to take the efforts surrounding these subjects seriously. Because the government helps dictate our educational programs, we need them to want to provide more experiential learning opportunities, not just equations and theories. In turn, these officials encourage other members of the ecosystem to take collaborative action.

Q: You’ve made it clear that you and other OEMs need to be involved with STEM education to make a difference. What outreach programs is GM involved with?

GM and the GM Foundation, have helped  multiple STEM programs including SAE Foundation’s A World in Motion and the FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Robotics competition, which reach students from kindergarten through secondary school. We have a number of corporate partnerships in collegiate programs such as EcoCAR2 and target our secondary school educators with training through Project Lead the Way.

In 2011, the GM Foundation began funding the Buick Achiever’s Scholarship, focused on high school and college students planning to study engineering, technology, design and some business curriculum. Counting this year’s scholarships, Buick Achievers has awarded nearly $16.5 million to about 3,300 students since the program began.

Q: What message do you have for current or future science, technology, engineering and math students?

I want students to know that engineers are just people doing cool things. We are problem-posers, problem-solvers, designers and future innovators. We get to predict what customers will want in the future and provide solutions for socio-economic issues that we can see developing 20 to 30 years into the future. Technology is rapidly changing and you must constantly evolve your skill set and continue learning, but there couldn’t be a more exciting time to become an engineer.


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