The president of the Society of Automotive Engineers is worried there may be no such group by the dawn of the 21st century because of a lack of new professionals to form a membership base.

Studies by the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences, as well as private industry, indicate the country is headed for a substantial shortfall in the number of qualified engineers, placing U.S. industry at a disadvantage with foreign firms.The NSF concludes the number of science and engineering baccalaureates will fall 45,000 short of demand by 1996, with that gap to grow to 700,000 by 2010.

Edward T. Mabley, 1989 president of the SAE, the Warrendale, Pa., center for the exchange of ideas between engineers in the auto, aerospace, construction and marine fields, said there is a common thread throughout the findings.

"The recurring theme is the lack of kids in kindergarden through grade 12 getting the proper stimulus in science and math to go on to become the nation's engineers," said Mabley, who manages heavy-duty truck development programs for Ford Motor Co.,

Mabley's mission as head of the SAE is to get young people interested in the academic areas that form the basis for a career in engineering. This involves knocking on the doors of prestigious universities, foundations and corporations to help fund such a drive.

"Kids need to have something to give them excitement, and this excitement is cars, airplanes and trucks," Mabley said, noting that automakers have captured the attention of young America in recent years with a new wave of sporty, powerful cars.

The SAE, which determines standards of quality and reliability primarily for automotive components, has a strong presence at the college level to entice young people.

"We have 194 SAE sections, or chapters, in North American college and university campuses, as well as a foundation to set up a trust for education," Mabley said. "This provides the means for us to whack away at this problem in a bigger fashion than we have before."

Another point recurrent in studies concerns the general decline in the number of college-aged people, and a marked decline in the supply of engineering graduates.

Also evident is the relatively low capacity of U.S. colleges and universities offering comprehensive engineering programs. The government's Council on Competitiveness shows as many as 1,800 engineering faculty positions at these schools are currently vacant.

The NSF study concludes many firms may have to harvest engineers from "non-traditional sources that may result in a diminution of quality, and threaten the long-term international competitiveness of the U.S."

An increasing number of U.S. students are foreign citizens who are taking their knowledge back home and putting it to work at foreign corporations.