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STEM education: Strategies to filling federal job slots of the future

Nathan Abse recently spoke with Lois Joy, senior research manager for the nonprofit group Jobs for the Future. Her work focuses on helping minorities and women to develop STEM interests and education, and connecting them with high-skill careers. In the federal workplace specifically, Joy has worked on aiding the communities she serves to gain middle-level technical jobs at certain agencies—most notably the Department of Transportation and the Department of Education. In this interview, Joy discusses her group’s strategies, and the growing importance of STEM education.

The federal government is increasingly dependent on technical expertise to function—and in jobs ranging from medical research to cyberwarfare, employees and managers increasingly require training and education in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In November, the FBI announced a renewed commitment to recruiting STEM graduates—and other federal agencies are stepping up similar efforts, including the National Security Agency’s STEM Education Partnership Program and the Food and Drug Administration’s FDA Regulatory Science STEM Program. Nathan Abse recently spoke with Lois Joy, senior research manager for the nonprofit group Jobs for the Future. Her work focuses on helping minorities and women to develop STEM interests and education, and connecting them with high-skill careers. In the federal workplace specifically, Joy has worked on aiding the communities she serves to gain middle-level technical jobs at certain agencies—most notably the Department of Transportation and the Department of Education. In this interview, Joy discusses her group’s strategies, and the growing importance of STEM education. 

Q&A with Lois Joy

What can government do to attract more STEM-educated job candidates—and win them over from more lucrative private sector recruiters?

Joy: At Jobs for the Future, we are interested in the future of work, and how to connect previously low-income, low-skill adults to the jobs of the future. And what we know is that more jobs in the future will require STEM skills—even in instances that don’t seem like the most obvious STEM job. Our model on how to engage young people to be ready for those jobs is to start early. We work with high schools and community colleges—but also even middle schools—all across the country. So, we do start early, and we work to build pathways to good jobs. These are clear pathways, ones that young people can see and follow, so that they can get to the jobs they need. The pathways include structural elements, including making sure the classes that students are taking in high school—and even middle school—will link them to obtaining college credit before they get there, and will allow them to transfer into community colleges, and so on. These are clear ways to get ahead, particularly for people from communities that are underrepresented in STEM fields, including people of color and women—and these kinds of pathways are very important.

What other methods do you use, beyond helping students receive early college credit?  

Joy: Well, in part, the pathways we help lay include other important elements. We often get young people [to encounter] role models and mentors, for instance, who can help them see what is possible for them in ways they would not have otherwise known—not having known anyone otherwise in these STEM fields. The pathways we help build include work-based learning components, internship components, job-shadowing components. So, using these methods the young people we serve are learning not only in school but on the job, too—and through this, they also gain connections with people who serve as role models and mentors. So, the three points I’ve outlined—starting early, building pathways, and providing role models and mentors—those are some ways we help build STEM skills and STEM careers. And they are effective methods—ones which we use to help people with STEM careers.

What about from the employer standpoint—how would you characterize the need for STEM-educated candidates?

Joy: From the employer perspective, whether the federal government, nonprofit or for-profit business, they are all right now rather desperate to hire people with STEM skills. We find that employers are willing to work with schools—high schools and colleges—to provide workplace learning opportunities. And that is a strategy that, as I said, is very successful.

Can you tell us about how your methods—including workplace learning—help both employer and future job seekers ?

Joy: I would say—as a first issue for federal agencies think about—this is a recruitment strategy that is successful, and using this model more could serve the federal government and its workforces very well. It would help [if federal agencies] would provide more on-the-job experiences to young people. Also, it would help to [more often] work closely with schools, to help them to understand and develop curriculum to get people the skills that are needed. I would also say, as a second major issue, that when making the effort to engage young people and interest them into a career, for instance in the federal government, money isn’t always the most important thing. Young people want to feel like they are making a contribution—a social contribution—and that they are helping their communities, and are solving problems. And it is easy to make a good case that if young people get educated in STEM fields, then they can be enabled to do that. You actually can help solve some of the world’s major problems, you can tell them—and for young people, this can be a major enticement.

So, you’ve given us two angles you think federal recruiters might go with: First, using on-the-job experiences—long before actual employment, and, second, appealing to the sense of mission and purpose above an interest in money. But can you give us an effective pitch—something that can battle the sense that agency jobs are less interesting than the private sector?

Joy: Absolutely—the message should be this: “Your work here will make a contribution to the major problems that the country and the world is facing today.” For instance, if you want someone to get involved at the Department of Transportation, talk about how the goal is to keep bridges and roads safe—and making them far more safe—for everyone. In this, the federal government, and people with STEM skills in it—makes a huge contribution.

In reaching young—specifically, very young—people, do you bring even kids in for site visits, and do you provide youth-oriented literature and media about some workplaces?

Joy: The model we use, the pathways to jobs and prosperity, go to the state and regional level, and work at that level, to build a coalition of school superintendents, employers and others in a state, working together to build a system where young people are getting exposed to STEM careers very early on. Through the networks we help create, employers go into middle and high schools, and—for instance—give talks and presentations, and develop programs, that provide help with courses that can gain students college credits and help lead to careers. It’s a group process, bringing schools and employers together. It helps employers—such as the federal government—because they go out and communicate more effectively about careers they need new people in. And it helps students and young people, because they can see that learning is not just about solving abstract problems, and real-world applications of learning, and how it all fits in with them, so young people actually are drawn in and get into these careers.

In the recent past—for many decades post-World War Two—that level of planning and cooperation between students and employers was not being used in many parts of society, right?

Joy: Yes. But using the strategies I have outlined, we have seen successes in both rural and urban areas of America. In our organization, we are really building connections and opportunities in a sector of the labor market, the “middle-skill” segment. This is for jobs that need less than a bachelor’s degree, but more than a high school diploma—some other credential is needed. What we have seen is that in the last thirty or so years, is that the old pipelines for getting people into those jobs—whatever they happened to be—were just not working very well. So, we have had to go in and build new ones, making new connections between employers and educators. That’s important. Also, we believe it is important that we help build up a system where there are opportunities for all. For example, what about when no one in a young person’s family ever did this sort of work? They often don’t know anything about these careers. Or they don’t feel they could do them, they couldn’t get there. How do we reach such people? Again, we provide the pathways, and ways to progress along them, and ways to connect with role models and mentors along the way. It is a very strong model, and it works.

Does it concern you, in your work, that there is talk—and research-driven talk—that a lot of jobs, including middle-level jobs could be going away in the future, as technology appears to be on the verge of eliminating many familiar jobs?

Joy: At Jobs of the Future, of course we are concerned about that—and where the jobs will be next, and about the future of work. We can’t predict completely, though, and so what we do know is to expect a lot of churn and change. Our focus, then, is to help people get the skills they will need to find employment even under changing circumstances, and technical skills are critical to doing that. So, for instance, in transportation, maybe the future will include more trains that run themselves, compared with now. Yet, there will still be a need for technicians and engineers who will develop and maintain the technology that runs them. In a recent technology report we looked at, we saw that a railroad technician is just as likely to have a laptop with them as they are a wrench. So, what we are looking for is to help people to develop in ways that help them get work, but also to have agility so that they can get new work and new jobs as things change. We really are looking for people that have technical skills as well as soft skills—the ability to communicate well. One anecdote from an employer, for instance, was this: “In the past we wanted someone who could replace the ball bearings. Now we want that but we also need someone who can communicate to us how fast the ball bearings are wearing down, and to be able to talk to us and help us catch things like that before they happen.” These are the kinds of things we see—that when we talk to employers, they want built into the curriculum. And that includes soft skills, and this kind of psychological and practical agility. It doesn’t mean you will never be unemployed, but it does mean you will have some basic skills you can build on—analytical skills and other skills, that can serve a person as they move from job to job. We need to start including this in young people’s education and curricula.

OK, so you have discussed some strategies you have use to get young people interested in a STEM education—and how federal agencies and recruiters might use them. But bottom line for your group attracting marginalized and less well-served minorities. Could you tell our readers more about your mission—and how improved leadership can boost these strategies you’ve outlined?

Joy: Yes. We are trying to build the bridges [to good jobs] back into the lives of those who have been marginalized. We find success in using the models we talked about here—ones that look at the skills that are and will be in demand, and build those skills into training systems and give people the support they need to get it all to work. We also know that once engaged leadership—and having champions, leaders who champion their people—are very important factors. When leaders are supportive of training and developing their workforce, that helps tremendously.

 

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