Helping STEM Grow: Knowledge to Fuel Innovation

America is running out of people to do STEM jobs--but there's time to turn things around.

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Lisa Hook is the CEO of Neustar

Let's start with the bottom line: America needs more geeks. We're running out.

That's not meant to be funny or even controversial—it's really just a statement of fact. It's been predicted that by 2018, there will be 1.4 million "computing" job openings in the country, but current educational patterns indicate that we'll have only about 400,000 graduates with appropriate degrees by then. This means that we won't have enough graduates to fill even 30 percent of those positions. More specifically, 40 out of the 50 states now produce fewer computing graduates than are needed to fill the projected openings for in-state technology jobs.

For growth companies like Neustar that count on innovation for success, this is a big problem. For the U.S. economy, it's an even bigger problem, perhaps even approaching crisis proportions.

It's not just about computer science, of course, but STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and math. You may not have heard because these activities don't get due attention, but there are several STEM initiatives out there, including Connect A Million Minds, Time Warner Cable's $100 million commitment to help address STEM deficiencies, and NASA's Women in STEM High School Aerospace Scholars (WISH) program. With March being STEM Education Month, we should all be hearing more about these types of initiatives.

America has consistently been outpaced by its competitors for years now—one assessment of student performance ranks the U.S. 25th in math and 17th in science when compared to other countries. That doesn't make it easy to drive innovation in the U.S.

As bad as those numbers sound, they're even more worrisome when considered in context: National unemployment is still above 8 percent, yet as a nation we need to recruit people with science and technology backgrounds from other countries to fill jobs that require STEM skills. It should be noted that these are good jobs--in fact, recent studies show STEM occupations pay an average of 26 percent more than other fields and provide great working conditions and job security.

But we can't just look to our current workforce to fill this gap. We need to plan for the future to ensure we'll have a 21st-century workforce that is adequately trained. This is where we need drastic change, and the best way to ignite this change is to get our children excited about STEM. Programs highlighting these disciplines should be made accessible and available to children at every level.

We'll need to place a special emphasis on mentoring and recruiting young women: A recent study indicated that while women represent a majority of college graduates overall, only 27.5 percent of associate's degrees and occupational certificates in the STEM fields were awarded to women in 2007. And, while it may be counterintuitive, as the percentage of female college graduates grows, the percentage of women in STEM fields is declining. As the female CEO of a technology company, I find this news particularly disturbing.

All that said, there's definitely time to turn things around--to change the perception and future of STEM--and at Neustar, we're doing our part. Among other STEM-related initiatives, we're heavily involved in My Digital Life, a digital literacy program that teaches kids about technology and how to use it responsibly, in both Virginia and Kentucky (the two states our company calls home). At least 34 schools have already signed up to participate. We're also a participant in Year Up!, a one-year, intensive training program that provides low-income young adults with a combination of hands-on skill development, college credits, and corporate internships. Neustar also participates in the Anita Borg Institute's annual Grace Hopper Celebration event, which supports and promotes the advancement of women in technology (our CTO is on the board).

Thursday, Neustar announced that it's partnering with the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana to open the Neustar Labs Innovation Center, which will enable university students to work with Neustar to develop commercial solutions to some of the most challenging problems our customers face. The facility will focus on technology, information, and digital media as the fulcrum for innovation at the intersection of business, science, design, and engineering--exactly what STEM is supposed to do. Working closely with Neustar Lab employees, students will drive projects focused on open innovation while developing professional skills that cannot be taught in the classroom.

We'll be doing more, and we're beginning to see other companies do more as well. No one questions that innovation and growth will suffer without a strong supply of incoming talent. A focus on STEM won't solve every problem, but it will drive the innovation needed to move this country forward. Science, technology, engineering, math—these disciplines are cool, and we all need to get that message across.