As much as any company, General Motors can feel the growing need for a higher level of technical skill in a broader range of jobs.
From next-generation engine design and its new information-technology innovation center in Austin, all the way through the technical machining and welding skills required on its factory floors, the automaker has found itself in an intensifying competition for talented labor around the country and the world.
“If you look in our technical design facilities … and then getting into the manufacturing side of it as well — we need engineers everywhere,” said Ken Barrett, GM’s chief diversity officer.
Because more and more jobs require greater levels of skill and educational certifications, a growing number of businesses have found that it’s in their own interest to encourage more education in the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math.
GM and dozens of other companies were in Austin on Tuesday at the first full day of the U.S. News STEM Solutions conference. The conference, at the Austin Convention Center, brought industry, government and education leaders together to discuss ways to improve technical education and workforce development issues.
“If you’re looking at just the numbers of STEM graduates that industry needs, it’s critical for all of us to be involved in the effort,” Barrett said at the conference before going to GM’s new IT center to meet with 100 of the Northeast Austin facility’s new hires. “I think you’re starting to see more and more companies that understand that it’s imperative.”
By bringing together industry with government and education, conference organizers hope to cultivate a new set of programs and ideas for producing a more STEM-skilled labor pool.
“Occupations are transforming,” said Andres Alcantar, chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission. “They’re changing on a very routine basis — not once a year, but sometimes three times a year.”
During Tuesday’s panels that were focused on workforce development — one of nine tracks at the conference — the discussions coalesced around three primary themes: reaching students early in their schooling and retaining their interest as they grow; creating more, and more flexible, educational paths that can get students the skills and certifications they need for meaningful careers; and encouraging a broader population to enroll in STEM programs.
To reach kids early, for example, NASA has developed a range of programs targeting students at almost any age, said Leland Melvin, the space agency’s associate administrator for education. In one of its headline projects, NASA is engaging high school students in a program to help design the radiation shield for the next-general Orion space capsule.
Several Central Texas companies have also taken a keen interest in reaching kids in earlier grades and developing programs that keep them engaged with STEM fields. National Instruments, which employs thousands of STEM-skilled workers in Austin, sponsors a range of programs in local schools.
AT&T and the AT&T Foundation have given about $90 million to support STEM programs since 1987, according a press release from the company.
“We all believe solving this long term starts with touching children earlier,” said Samantha Dwinell, director of human resources at Texas Instruments, “so reaching way back to kindergarten (and) elementary school … and finding ways to solve the problem back then.”
Still, the confluence of industry, government and education inevitably produces competing interests and bureaucratic snags. Many STEM proponents across those sectors have encouraged the development of clearer, flexible paths to certifications and degrees.
One panel, focused on online badges and alternative credentials, discussed various ways to give students credit for skills they might obtain over the course of their schooling.
While those skills might not match exactly what is needed for a certificate or a job opening, allowing students to accumulate various talents and stack up what they learn toward a degree or certificate would provide more paths to a meaningful career.
Such programs could be especially effective for people re-entering the private workforce after a stretch in the military, panelists said. But they shouldn’t replace existing, formal education paths, including two- and four-year degrees.
“It’s not an either-or,” said Jennifer McNelly, president of the Manufacturing Institute, a branch of the National Association of Manufacturers. “It’s all of the above.”
Just as the STEM pipeline has to consider the full range of pathways to careers, McNelly and others said, so also does it have to consider the full range of potential students and workers.
At present, women and ethnic minorities tend to be underrepresented in most STEM fields, industry leaders said. Finding ways to target those populations could help bring a new generation of workers into skilled, well-paying jobs.
“Culturally, we need to create expectations that are great,” said Alcantar. “And they can be great if they’re centered around STEM.”