Businesses have spent billions of dollars over the years to help promote STEM education in the United States, but throwing money at a problem can only do so much. At the 2012 U.S. News STEM Solutions Summit, representatives from some of the nation's largest corporations shared their strategies for helping to make STEM education efforts more successful.
Make it interesting.
Getting students of any age excited about STEM means making some of firms' less-glamorous STEM jobs more enticing.
"Not every child that's born grows up and says, 'I want to work for a utility.' Part of what we try to do is make our business interesting." said Michael E. Haefner, senior vice president of Human Resources at Atmos Energy.
That can be as simple as showing the real-world results that otherwise mundane-seeming jobs and skills can produce.
"When somebody wakes up in the morning and it's cold, everyone ... turns their heat on at 7 a.m. and expects their gas furnace to be drawing gas," says Haefner. Many complicated processes are involved in making that happen. Helping students understand the complexities of that system might make STEM education more popular in American schools.
Educate the Educators
Even if U.S. colleges and universities manage to churn out many more STEM graduates, there is no guarantee that they will have the skills they need to make it in the job market. Boeing has taken the step of letting universities know how they're doing. According to Rick Stephens, senior VP of human resources and administration at Boeing, the company recently evaluated its engineers and "provided that info back to the universities." In his opinion, that "has fundamentally changed the discussion about engineers coming out of some schools."
Of course, this discussion is important outside of the higher-education arena.
"There's a lot of jobs out there that pay well that don't require a college degree," says Riz Chand, chief human resources officer at BNSF Railway. Making sure high schools are also teaching STEM courses well—and that students know their career options after high school—could also help to promote STEM education.
Make it hands-on
Some companies are giving students first-hand knowledge of what STEM education today means for their careers tomorrow. Scott Smith, senior VP of human resources at AT&T, says that his company has brought in more than 100,000 students from across the nation for job shadowing, to give those students an idea of what their future jobs might look like.
Keep doing what they're doing.
As businesses that need STEM graduates continue to be profitable and grow, they will need more and more STEM workers, creating a greater demand in the labor market and, perhaps, creating a greater impetus for students to take STEM courses. At some firms, that demand is already growing. As older workers retire, new jobs are opening up. Chand says that 3.5 percent of BNSF's workforce is retiring in the near future. Stephens says that his company hired 18,000 people last year, and plans to add 12,000 this year, as well as in each of the following two years.