When I review the vast amounts of research and combine it with my personal experiences and observations, I can’t help but see the patterns giving us answers.
Introduction Stage—STEM Education
Manufacturers have been crying out for the past few years about the skills gap problem. According to a highly cited report by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, in the next decade, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will likely be needed, and 2 million are expected to go unfilled due to the skills gap. The first way to help with this skills pipeline shortage is education. More specifically, STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education and applied learning opportunities are needed. While there is a vast amount of research and emotions around the topic, let’s focus on what can be done today to encourage the next generation to embrace STEM disciplines, especially girls. And let’s realize that most of what is needed to foster a love of STEM education and careers is 100% free.
Think of education like the introduction stage of a product life cycle. When we introduce a new product, demand will be low until customers become aware of the products and its benefits. While STEM and applied learning focuses used to be inherent in the U.S. education system, they faded away and the error of that decision is now being felt. The infrastructure is being rebuilt to support these programs again, but that is going to take a while—and these jobs, companies, and future employees don’t have time to spare. There are education solutions that can happen now and the patterns of research show they are successful.
Having a mentor in an area of interest creates longer-term engagement and success in starting, completing, and working in fields with a STEM-based degree.
According to "Why so Few?" by the American Association of University Women in 2010, "Mentorship is often cited as a key strategy for exciting, supporting, and keeping students and young scientists and engineers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). This is particularly true for individuals who haven’t historically participated in these areas—such as young women and underrepresented minorities."
The Million Women Mentor program was developed for "Advancing women and girls in STEM careers through mentoring", and they provide statistics showing the importance of mentors, as well as resources to help people become mentors. No excuses! Some of their findings:
- 59% of educators believe mentoring/motivational programs would help students prepare for their futures.
- One out of four female students report their greatest challenges in attending college are confidence, motivation, or support.
- Only 4% of female students interested in pursuing STEM were encouraged to do so by a mentor.
- Twenty percent of current female high school students interested in a STEM discipline say they would like to learn more about mentoring and motivational programs to help prepare them for the future.
While many of the mentoring programs include this aspect of serving as a role model, I want to call it out separately. Even if someone can’t take on a regular mentoring role, they can speak at a conference, write blogs, attend career fairs, bring students on tours of their company—any place that allows students to see a successful woman and realize their own potential.
When I’ve met with female students, they often ask me if I’m in marketing or human resources or if I’m the secretary at my company. When they learn I’m the president, it totally changes their perception of their own future possibilities. Role models provide students with the hope of what is possible. They provide encouragement and inspiration to the next generation.
My personal involvement as a role model and mentor includes numerous organizations that focus on women, STEM, and sometimes both! I’ve recently participated in the Astra STEAM Summit sponsored by the Astra Women’s Business Alliance.
Astra’s STEAM Summit combines mentoring by STEAM industry women CEOs with the applied learning benefits of developing their own business ideas. Female teenagers not only get to hear from a number of high-level women business owners, but they get to talk with us one-on-one, follow up with us directly, and know they have a connection willing to help them. They have role models in the higher levels of STEM-based careers they wish to reach.
As with mentors and role models, when STEM content is provided in a way that is relatable to students, the engagement and commitment to a STEM education significantly increases. There are numerous successful examples of programs already providing this hands-on engagement outside of the official classroom.
The FIRST Robotics Competition provides hands-on learning using math and engineering to promote STEM-based learning and it's having an impact on the higher number of girls focused on STEM degrees. According to FIRST statistics, of those who have participated in FIRST:
- They are 2 times as likely to major in science or engineering
- 33% of girls plan to major in engineering
- More than 75% are in a STEM field as a student or professional
In addition, programs like FIRST provide the 21st century skills such as problem solving, time management, and conflict resolution that combine with STEM for greatest success.
As schools work to bring STEM studies back to the classroom, programs like FIRST are already making a difference. Getting this STEM content to the students in a way that is interesting, educational, and inspiring is what will make the difference in getting more girls into STEM fields. Companies can help these students by sponsoring teams, providing financial and in-kind donations, and serving as mentors and leaders for the teams.
Mentors, role models, and STEM content all play a role in helping educate young girls and women about the opportunities waiting for them in the manufacturing industry. Education is the first step to solve the skills pipeline challenge and we don’t need to wait on big changes in the education system to start making a difference. Become a mentor, show up as a role model, sponsor a STEM program—change a life.