Webcast Recap

As technology mandates a reevaluation of the preparation of our current workforce, improving students’ creative and computational skills are the key to unlocking the future success of America. Together with the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), the Program for America and the Global Economy (PAGE) of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted a series of panels on “21st Century Pathways to a Skilled Technology Workforce”. Lucy Sanders, CEO & co-founder, The National Center for Women and Information Technology noted that there is no clear, straight path to fixing the skills shortage.  Identifying current issues in finding talented individuals in Science, Math, Engineering and Technology (STEM), the diverse group of panelists, including representatives from the Department of Defense, technology companies, and education experts, discussed how to best include  this skillset into the education system today, so that the future workforce can better meet society’s needs.

A keynote address from Congressman Thomas Petri (R-WI) highlighted the “global mismatch” between the skills demanded   by rapidly changing technology land the workforce’s relative lack of needed training – a recurring theme throughout the program. He noted Wisconsin’s ranking as the number one manufacturing state in the country.  Manufacturing provides a large number of high paying jobs.   Manufacturing careers, however   Manufacturing, however, demands a school system that focuses on “functional literacy”, adequate preparation in science, technology, and mathematics, and that includes company-partnered programs to train students for the abundance of well-paid positions in the industry.

“Talent needs to hit the ground running,” remarked Donagh Herlihy, Senior VP and CIO of Avon Products, Inc. The main problem currently facing companies is finding talent - more and more companies are struggling to fill positions requiring candidates who are innovative and technology literate. Not only are companies looking for individuals with STEM qualifications, but also those with business skills; time management and experience are vital components to success. 

The small STEM talent pool in the United States is indicative of the “mismatch” outlined by Congressmen Petri and is heightened by an “attitude mismatch”. Dan Zelem, CIO of Medco, remarked that women primarily associate technology with videogames, decreasing the likelihood that they will choose a career in this field. University students on the whole are less frequently studying STEM related subjects (aside from those choosing biology as a step toward medical school). Furthermore, few realize that companies are desperately seeking to fill positions in this area, the majority of which are high skill-based and pay well.   

Students are being diverted from STEM opportunities for two primary reasons, said Dr. Anthony Carnevale, Director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. First, students can find higher wages in other sectors, with standard 9-5 work schedules and no weekend overtime in a laboratory. Secondly, the labor market itself diverts talent. Talented individuals who begin in a STEM related position are quickly promoted up the chain to management positions. STEM occupations are a fast growing, high wage component of the American workforce in a society that is lacking the appropriate support structure.

Lack of U.S. talent opens the door to another problem: national security. Companies are increasingly forced to find talent outside of the United States to meet their needs. This creates security issues and setbacks as many positions, especially in the military and other government offices require security clearance. Security clearance is only available to U.S. nationals.  Furthermore, U.S. citizens are eliminating themselves from obtaining clearance due to financial bankruptcy or relations with “subversive organizations”, as Robin Williams from the Department of Homeland Security explained.  The main issue in the science and technology field is that 57 percent of STEM educated folks are foreign nationals.

To meet the challenge and enlarge the talent pool of competent U.S. STEM professionals, increased coordination at all levels is needed. Local communities, companies, schools, and the government must collaborate to support and engage students who are able, but unwilling. Outreach is vital in increasing engagement in STEM opportunities. Combined efforts will steer the workforce and address its needs. All sectors need to have a unified approach so that there is “more alignment and less redundancy”, noted Susan Lavrakas of the Aerospace Industries Association.

In order to address the problems outlined, and find viable solutions, there was a unanimous call to look toward the current school system. Students need encouragement and opportunity to explore the STEM fields through programs providing the hands on experience valued by potential employers. Increasing the school curricula on computer science and engineering will help to meet the needs of the future and increase American competitiveness globally. When given the opportunity, Anthony Fowler of Fowler Consulting emphasized, “Kids can do amazing things”.

Drafted by: Georgina Ellison

Kent Hughes, Director, Program on America and the Global Economy