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As New Year’s well wishes and resolutions fade, Rhode Island is once again faced with a dichotomous workforce crisis: double-digit unemployment and the inability of many companies to fill their high-tech, high-wage job vacancies.
At the end of last year, Dice.com listed 213 “technology” jobs in the Rhode Island area. The state’s EmployRI job search bank showed 528. This is while November 2012’s unemployment rate came in at a consistently staggering 10.4 percent.
Additionally, as Tech Collective is currently conducting an update of its Information Technology Skills Gap Report, focus groups and interviews have been hosted so far with 30 IT representatives from nearly as many companies. The responses are the same – specific skill sets or preferred experiences may differ, but the overwhelming need is for skilled talent.
This is not a new issue. There have long been concerns about developing our workforce to keep pace with the exponentially growing transition of the United States from a blue-collar manufacturing society to a high-tech, high-touch service one.
This problem is compounded by misunderstandings about the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Unsubstantiated myths – such as “all IT jobs are being outsourced overseas” and controversies – such as around biologics, biosimilars and exclusivity periods – continue to hinder the credibility and growth of industries that are actually quite viable, sustainable and profitable.
Capital failures, such as 38 Studios, are Titanics in a sea of thousands of legitimate, successful companies. These capsizes are extremely rare, but they leave an indelible mark of misunderstanding and fear in the outsider perception that discourages investment in STEM programs and discourages us from advising our children to explore these fields as possible careers.
Industry involvement is also critical. As science and technology continue to grow and evolve, there is a need to continue to raise interest and awareness of the industries. Many students do not have a first-hand reference to STEM. According to the May 2012 CompTIA report, “Youth Opinions of Careers in Information Technology, ““61 percent of teens do not know someone who works in the IT industry or an IT occupation.”
When teens were asked why they were not interested in an IT career, responses included: “Don’t know enough about the IT field” (47 percent), “Don’t want a job sitting behind a desk all day” (21 percent), “Too expensive to go to school to get the required training/qualifications,” (16 percent), and “Career in IT will be too boring” (16 percent).
The U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration report, “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation,” postulates similar factors contributing to the low participation of women in the STEM fields, including workload demands as it relates to personal/family responsibilities, “gender stereotypes,” and a lack of “female STEM role models.”
Both reports note that there is no clear answer to the gap in STEM interest and engagement. However, it is not a far-fetched idea that the lack of a clear understanding of the industry and slim, sometimes nonexistent, opportunities to explore it play prominent roles. Many IT professionals would laugh at the idea that their jobs are “too boring” or even that they “sit behind a desk all day.”
So what is being done?
It is an inherent characteristic of the sciences and technology industries to be resilient and innovative. Engagement and education in the sciences are proving no different. In recent years, STEM-focused secondary education models have emerged, and several education/workforce programs have come to fruition to contribute to STEM exploration opportunities for youth.
During 2012 in Rhode Island: More than 100 high school students participated in the Rhode Island Cyber Foundations Competition led by Rep. James Langevin.
Junior Achievement of Rhode Island programs tying in STEM skills reached more than 2,400 students in 40 elementary, middle and high schools. And 610 middle and high school girls attended STEM in the Middle, hosted at the Rhode Island STEM Center at Rhode Island College, and GRRL Tech, hosted at the increasingly STEM-focused University of Rhode Island.
Another 507 students gained first-hand STEM insight from 23 classroom speakers and industry tours through Tech Collective. Still, additional impactful programs include: US FIRST Robotics, Year Up, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, Raytheon’s MathMovesU, the Amgen-Bruce Wallace program, the University of Rhode Island’s SMILE program, and its new weeklong Chemistry Camp for middle school girls.
For the adult or transitioning worker, STEM programs offer entrepreneurial and career opportunities.
The Rhode Island Business Plan Competition and startup incubator Betaspring are programs not exclusive to technology proposals, but their winners and “Betasprouts,” respectively, have been consistently rooted in or relying on technology and the sciences.
However, even with STEM workforce pipeline programs under way, there is no overnight solution for filling the talent needs of the industry.
As does any solution, developing a future workforce takes time. But one component is critical: a catalyst.
With a new year upon us, one resolution seems most pertinent if we truly want to build a world-class STEM talent pool. That is investment – to be a catalyst. And to do so by sharing our time and know-how: Spend one hour a week or a month facilitating a workshop or mentoring an after-school club; offer one morning to take a group of students on a tour of an R&D or manufacturing facility; visit a classroom to take apart and rebuild a computer module; host one intern for 10 weeks.
These are the experiences which provide the real-world insight that dispel myths, break down gender and stereotype barriers and spark a true excitement for STEM.
They inspire and enable talent. They allow companies to grow and innovate. They lower unemployment numbers. But they require a resolution to action. And what better time to be a catalyst than right now? •