Catch them young
How employers are taking responsibility for the skills deficit
by Michelle Boyde
As a teenager, struggling with spots and puberty it is hard to transfer your attention from attracting the opposite sex to your future career. Despite this challenge, many employers see a need to target talent pre-university. In February 2010, Rolls-Royce chief executive, Sir John Rose said not enough British students are studying engineering and science, inhibiting efforts to revive industry. This is not news to anyone trying to hire graduates from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects – The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has said there has been a global decline in graduates in these disciplines for years. For some employers the goal is simply to create employer brand awareness at an earlier age; for others it is an industry focus to secure a long term pipeline of skilled graduates.
Two such organisations include the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the US and the European Space Agency (ESA) who both sees it as their responsibility to encourage young people to pursue engineering and science education. It’s important to mention that neither of these employers currently struggles to fill their vacancies and both boast robust employer brands: NIH is ranked number one by natural science students in the US and ESA is ranked 21 in Germany by engineering students. The NIH and ESA are both building for the future: “For a long time NIH has regarded this as pipeline management and believe we have a broader responsibility to promote scientific research and be a beacon of inspiration for children,” explained David Uejio, special assistant to the director of HR at the NIH.
The key thing to remember is that big employers such as NIH and ESA snap up what engineering and scientific talent is available. Their activities to promote engineering and science education should positively impact smaller enterprises. More people graduating in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects will result in a larger talent pool and increased innovation worldwide.
You can never be too young
NIH takes their position to inspire children seriously, starting with children as young as two years old. NIH was a key player at this year’s USA Science and Engineering Festival held at the National Mall, an open-arena park in Washington. At the event on 25th October, children of all ages were encouraged to dress up, either as a researcher, doctor or director of NIH. The NIH team took photographs and then photoshopped them into the appropriate backdrop which served as a memento of the occasion. The tactic is simple, but works across a range of age groups.
“We wanted them to be able to see themselves in the role 10, 20 years in the future,” Uejio said. “We tried to create desire and excitement about the roles we have.”
Over 270 photographs were taken that day and posted to the guests, leaving a lasting memory of the experience.
This was the first time NIH took part in the event as part of their K-12 activities (K-12 is the designation for children from Kindergarten through to 12th grade): “This is a new concept for us, so we have no measurements in place yet to evaluate it, but we plan to go back next year,” Uejio said.
Competition for skills and interest
ESA gave secondary school pupils the chance to work on their first space-related project. In 2010, ESA launched the first ever European CanSat competition. A CanSat is a simulation of a real life satellite and is created with a drinks can and electronics components. Teams of four students built the CanSat, which is fired a kilometre into the air. The device must then record temperature and pressure, followed by a secondary mission of the students’ choice.
Dr. Roger Walker, head, Education Projects Activities Unit Education and Knowledge Management Office, explained the idea was inspired by previous CanSat competitions in the US and Japan, and the work universities such as TU Delft in the Netherlands do with the Dutch competition to encourage students to enroll on engineering courses.
“We have an end-user interest to ensure that there are suitable quantities of students in engineering fields for the future,” Walker said. “We motivate students to get more from themselves and be inspired through giving them a practical experience.”
Having young people engage in hands-on activities is likely to be more successful than simply telling them a career in engineering is exciting. Findings from the 2009 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index show that 28 per cent of US teenagers don’t know what professionals in the fields of engineering, technology, science and mathematics actually do.
The competition was organised in collaboration with the Norwegian Centre for Space-related Education (NAROM), and took place between the 15th and 19th August 2010. The competition included 10 countries, with one school representing each country at the final in Norway.
But it not only reached across geographical boundaries but genders: “About 30 per cent of the students involved were female, a proportion which met or exceeded our expectations,” Walker said.
ESA’s next target is to encourage more countries in Europe to setup national CanSat competitions in order to maximize the outreach to as many secondary school students as possible. The winners of these competitions could then represent their country in future European events.
Still in infancy
Targeting pre-university students is still a fairly new approach and the size of the teams responsible for running these activities reflects this. However, employer and industry branding to younger people is in the pipeline globally. Many employers approached for this article said they were planning activities but cannot yet talk about them.
Will it bridge the gap?
Will these initiatives really entice young people to train to be engineers and scientists? And will they provide business with the skills sets required to foster innovation?
“I’m optimistic. There is growing recognition of the challenge and NIH is in a position to lead on this issue,” Uejio said.
ESA see this as a continuing challenge that will continue to evolve as technology does: “We definitely see competency gaps and our university-level programmes try to plug these,” Walker said. “There will be new competencies required – planning for the future needs to be addressed, for example as Europe develops its own Satellite Navigation capability.”
For a long time NIH has regarded this as pipeline management and believe we have a broader responsibility to promote scientific research and be a beacon of inspiration for children
David Uejio, special assistant to the director of HR at the NIH.
We definitely see competency gaps and our university-level programmes try to plug these
Dr. Roger Walker, head, Education Projects Activities Unit Education and Knowledge Management Office