I recently attended the U.S. News & World Report STEM Solutions National Conference in Austin, Texas held in June. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math and to improve competitiveness, the quality of products & services, innovation, and safety in this country, STEM workforce development needs to be advanced.
As a former R&D engineer, application engineer, and technology training manager in the oil & gas and elevator industries, I know the importance of properly developing and allocating human resources to make new innovations and processes while ensuring reliability and safety for both employees and end users. I also know the concerted effort it takes from many individuals and groups within a company to bring these efforts together.
People’s ability to build on knowledge or “craft ever more advanced technology” is referred to as cultural ratcheting.1
Indeed, we daily take the ideas of others and put our own twist on them, adding one modification after another, until we end up with something new and very complex. No one individual, for example, came up with all the intricate technology embedded in a laptop computer: such technological achievements arise from the creative insights of generations of inventors…It requires, first and foremost, the ability to pass on knowledge from one individual to another, or from one generation to the next, until someone comes along with an idea for an improvement.
This is why the STEM movement is so exciting and can be so powerful in helping companies advance the benefits they provide while improving reliability and safety. It is just now beginning to really ramp up.
Real Results from the STEM Solutions Conference
The U.S. News STEM conference held this past June in Austin was the follow-up to last year’s inaugural event. The inaugural conference was held last year in Dallas, and it has spurred greater involvement in STEM, bringing together people to make progress. For example, at that inaugural summit, STEMx was launched. STEMx is a network of states improving the quality of STEM education by spreading the tools and practices that make the greatest impact while engaging businesses, government, and other organizations to make progress. Since its inception, STEMx has grown from 13 original states to now 19 states.
At this year’s conference, Austin Community College (ACC) was featured as a leader in improving STEM education along with community engagement. ACC made a very large commitment to leading STEM skills training by actually buying an old shopping mall (the former Highland Mall) to create innovative centers including the largest math emporium in the nation (a lab for individualized learning), science labs, and a regional workforce R&D center, among many other new spaces.
Phase I of the facility will open Fall 2014.2 I look for ACC Highland to do great things and to set a great example for other colleges to follow. It should ultimately help with many of the goals spoken about at the Austin STEM Conference including giving people opportunities, improving quality, and spurring advancements. With its partnerships with businesses, ACC will give its students credentials and certificates to meet the direct needs of modern employers in fields such as advanced manufacturing and nursing.
Key Themes of STEM Solutions 2013
As you may imagine, there were many topics discussed at the STEM Solutions conference in June. In the opening keynote session, it was noted that we are moving in the right direction but that there are many challenges ahead. Here are some of the themes I heard and read repeatedly.
Improving K-12 education and teacher training for math & science
There was much discussion on improving K-12 education along with teacher training for math & science as education is critical to getting more people involved in filling our country’s need for technical talent. An eye-opening statistic I read is that “only 26% of U.S. 12th graders [are] now deemed proficient in math.”3
STEMconnector is an organization that connects stakeholders in STEM, and during the conference they released their new book 100 CEO Leaders in STEM that includes great quotes from leading CEOs expressing the importance of STEM and sharing what steps they believe need to be taken. Tom Linebarger, CEO of Cummins Inc. said:
“Industry must take a stronger stake in education by taking part in developing schools’ curriculum, creating internships for talented students and supporting communities with valuable education opportunities and resources… Education is the single most important factor in achieving U.S. innovative competitiveness globally.”4
Manufacturing is requiring more and more technical and math skills, and improved education can help reinvigorate manufacturing in the United States. Currently, “600,000 manufacturing jobs are going unfilled” due to “a large shortage of employees with STEM skills.”5
Many leaders said it was very critical for companies to identify competencies and skills for their STEM employees so they can advance workforce development and have successful partnerships with academia. They also mentioned that companies should incorporate ways to better manage valuable STEM talent such as creating and supporting career paths that are rewarding for STEM employees and can benefit their industries.
Pete Selleck, President of Michelin North America, Inc. said in the 100 CEO Leaders in STEM book:
We need to be able to articulate what careers in these fields look like today and become personally involved in education. From college and technical students all the way down to those in high school and middle school, they need to understand what a STEM career path might offer.4
It was certainly said that not enough of the public understands the great demand for STEM jobs.
Although U.S. government and industry annually spend $1.2 trillion to attract, develop, and retain a qualified STEM workforce, employers in the science and technology fields still cannot fill all open positions.6
Lowell McAdam, CEO of Verizon Communications said:
The demand is there. The real issue for Verizon and the country as a whole is on the supply side of the equation. Corporations need to develop and implement a concerted strategy for finding intellectual capital and investing in the education of our young people so that we have a pipeline of capable workers to fill these knowledge-based jobs.4
Also, it was mentioned that it is critical to find ways to scale up programs that do work.
The Future of American Innovation and Productivity
Working to improve STEM education, to better manage STEM talent, and to advance STEM training for workers will pay off for companies, industries, and our country. Again, innovation certainly comes from people learning from each other, and good knowledge transfer is absolutely vital for industries to safely and reliably produce quality products and services.
We now have a shortage of STEM workers, and the need for STEM talent is only increasing in many industries. So, it is great that our schools, colleges, and universities are coming up with ways to better prepare future contributors. It’s also great that companies are looking for ways to advance their STEM workforce development. Industry and company specific training and development are so often key to producing high quality work safely and reliably.
It certainly takes a concerted effort from many parties to insure the sharing of knowledge that leads to advancements. Preparation will never go out of style, and that’s why education and training are both key to advancements.
Prepared transfer of knowledge ensures:
1) quality learning and understanding,
2) efficient scaling for consistency and growth, and
3) knowledge retention.
From my experience in industry and training & development, I know that engineers and scientists have a great drive to learn the different facets of bringing products to fruition. They seek out and appreciate training that is well prepared on subjects from design for manufacturability and material selection to part tolerances and finite element analyses. What is good for them is also good for companies. Engineers and scientists are very passionate about learning and producing, and there are many opportunities for companies to help them learn how they can better work with other specialists and make greater contributions.
If resources are planned properly, this transfer of knowledge can be scaled and properly sustained to achieve dramatic gains in productivity, innovation, safety, and reliability. Another great quote I read is from Michael Long, CEO of Arrow Electronics, Inc.,
We need to create a generation of STEM-literate innovators… When the traditional lines between business, education and art are blurred mega-innovation-happens.4
I completely agree.
Related Article: Upstream vs. Downstream
Read more about the difference between Upstream and Downstream segments of the oil and gas industry.
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1Pringle, Heather. “The Origins of Creativity.” Scientific American March 2013: 43.
3“The Nation’s Report Card: Grade 12 Reading and Mathematics 2009 National and Pilot State Results,” National Assessment of Educational Progress, November 2010, http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/main2009/2011455.asp#section1.
4STEMconnector. 100 CEO Leaders in STEM. 2013.
5My College Options and STEMconnector. Where are the STEM Students? 2012-2013: i.
6U.S. News & World Report, STEMconnector, and University of Phoenix. Growing a Strong STEM Workforce: Strategies to Meet Industry Talent Needs. Executive Summary. 2013.