The Dow Chemical Co. has created products such as plastic bags, water purifiers, and military weapons for more than 100 years, but the company is worried that America's science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education crisis might leave it understaffed.
"We need not only the workforce to produce [our products], but [also] a society that understands how science and chemistry are important and won't be frightened by new products," says Bo Miller, president and executive director for the Dow Chemical Company Foundation, the community outreach arm of the company.
[Read about an organization that is training 450 STEM teachers in three states.]
Miller's concerns extend to other American companies who depend on highly skilled employees to fill science, math, and engineering vacancies. In April, a coalition of 110 business executives, along with the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, an organization affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, issued new guidelines to improve STEM education. The report, "The Case for Being Bold," urges companies to donate money to school districts and educational organizations that are using innovative techniques to improve student performance.
Dow Chemical is based in Midland, Mich., where 5,000 of the town's 40,000 people work for the company. The third-largest chemical company in the world, Dow employs nearly 50,000 people in more than 175 countries. Miller says the company has formed partnerships with community colleges and high schools in and around Midland that will directly benefit the company in the coming years.
Company employees volunteer at local high schools to show students what types of careers are available in the STEM field. Miller says workers don't necessarily need Ph.D.s in chemistry to be an asset.
"There are a lot of technologies where a two-year associate degree can present someone with a viable and rewarding career," he says. By having employees volunteer at high schools, students can see someone who "has a meaningful job with a bright career path in front of them. It allows students to visualize how they could be in that position 5 [or] 10 years down the road."
[Learn about scholarships for two-year degrees.]
The company has helped design a specialized two-year associate degree program at local community colleges where students learn to become technicians in the company's factory. Students spend time learning factory-specific skills that will make them more likely to get hired at Dow Chemical after they graduate, Miller says.
Dow Chemical is also working to train teachers in STEM and promote interest in science and math in elementary and middle schools.
Other companies and professional organizations are similarly focusing on STEM education. Marion Blakey, chief executive officer of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), an organization which represents civil, military, and business aircraft manufacturers, says it's important that STEM achievement becomes a national focus.
"We are in danger because the overall age of our workforce is much greater than you see in many work fields," she says. Blakey estimates that more than 150,000 employees (nearly a quarter) in the aerospace engineering field will retire over the next five years. American-born employees are in demand because the security clearances needed for many industry jobs are often available to American citizens only, she says. "There is a vital self-interest here."
[Read about government efforts to combat a disinterest in the sciences.]
AIA sponsors the annual Team America Rocketry Challenge, a high school competition in which schools compete to launch a rocket to a precise height. Blakey says the competition helps make students aware of the many companies who are looking to fill engineering vacancies.
One of the main findings of "The Case for Being Bold" is that companies often waste money by donating to causes that reinforce the status quo. Philanthropy is often seen as a tax write-off. Companies must realize that smart business and philanthropy don't have to be separated. The thought that a donation can help a company down the road is something Miller, of Dow Chemical, is quick to point out.
"We're trying to create STEM-capable communities with people who then, unabashedly, will be vying for career opportunities with our company," he says. "It's in our business interest as well as our society's interest to have a STEM-capable population."