Working Hypothesis: STEM Jobs Need Better Branding
Jun 14, 2012 Comment
In a recent article for The Washington Post, David Steel, executive VP of strategy for Samsung Electronics North America, addressed our nation's STEM challenge. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math, and the U.S. is facing a growing shortage of STEM workers.
This is a multi-faceted, deeply rooted problem that will require a combination of strategies and solutions, locally and nationally. Across the country, there are hundreds of programs and initiatives working to attract more kids and adults to STEM careers, as well as endeavoring to build up our capacity to teach STEM subjects. But across the board, it seems that one critical piece of the puzzle is a basic failure to communicate clear, compelling messages about what it means to work in STEM fields.
As Steel put it, "One of the obstacles to solving this problem is that students are simply not interested in or excited by STEM subjects. With the notable exception of Iron Man's alter ego Tony Stark, our popular culture doesn't often celebrate engineers, scientists or mathematicians." This calls to mind TV's "Big Bang Theory." Those uber-geeks can be hilarious, but they are not inspirational STEM role models for your average teen.
Steel goes on to cite a survey conducted by Intel and nonprofit Change the Equation, which found that three out of five teenagers have never considered a career in engineering. Linda Rosen, CEO at Change the Equation (a fantastic resource about all things STEM) also referenced this survey at The Atlantic's Technologies in Education Forum in May. She explained that many teenagers simply don't have any idea what engineers do. So in addition to pop-culture stereotypes, we have an information vacuum.
There's hope, however. Rosen went on to say that when teens were given real-world examples, such as the role of engineers in rescuing the trapped Chilean miners, they got interested. The survey also found that teens become more willing to consider a career in engineering when they learn about the earning potential.
Engineering is just one pillar of STEM, but it seems likely that many teens are equally clueless about a wide variety of STEM careers. In fact, because of a widespread lack of science and math literacy that's at the root of the STEM problem, I would propose that a significant percentage of adults in the U.S. have no idea what most STEM professions involve.
The STEM acronym is only a decade old. It was originated by Dr. Judith Ramaley during her tenure as assistant director of the education and human resources directorate at the National Science Foundation. Before Ramaley gave it a simple but much-needed makeover, the acronym in use at NSF was SMET. Ramaley switched it around, not only because it sounded better, but also because she felt that science and math supported technology and engineering and the new order better showed the connections between the four areas.
Back then, STEM had a little re-branding that helped it get off the ground. Now that the acronym has been around for a while and has gained traction (in education and policy circles, anyway) maybe it's time for some big-picture branding, aimed at capturing the imagination of the general public. Here are two core messages that might form the foundation of such an effort.
One: STEM jobs are sexy.
All right, we might not actually use the word sexy. But sexy is shorthand for lots of things, depending on the target audience and the type of STEM work being promoted. STEM jobs are exciting. STEM jobs are rewarding. STEM jobs are cutting-edge. STEM jobs are lucrative. STEM jobs are cool.
One admirable effort in this direction is the "Secret Lives of Scientists and Engineers" segment on the PBS show "NOVA scienceNOW." These engaging videos feature relatable STEM role models like Mollie Woodworth, neuroscientist and cheerleader, and Stephon Alexander, theoretical physicist and saxophone player.
I'm not sure how many young people are actually tuning in to "NOVA scienceNOW" or perusing the show's website, so the profiles may primarily resonate with kids who are already STEM-inclined. But these profiles strike the right note, showing that smart people can be cool people, that regular kids can grow up to do amazing things, and that the STEM work they do is just one aspect of their lives.
Two: You don't have to be a rocket scientist to pursue a STEM career.
This might seem counter intuitive. I mean, we do need some rocket scientists, right? But to attract more STEM workers, we might want to bring STEM down to earth a little. STEM includes the nation's top scientists and engineers, but it also includes the people with the skills and training to do a wide range of essential, everyday work. Plus, you don't have to be a traditional student to pursue a STEM profession. There are training programs, certificates and accelerated degrees aimed at veterans, displaced workers and mid-career workers, just to name a few.
As described in a recent report about STEM from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce,"The STEM supply problem goes beyond the need for more professional scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. We also need more qualified technicians and skilled STEM workers in Advanced Manufacturing, Utilities and Transportation, Mining, and other technology-driven industries." In addition, the report emphasizes that STEM competencies are increasingly in demand across a wide spectrum of jobs, not just traditional STEM professions.
The NOVA scienceNOW profiles are great, but they feature super-smart superstars who are doing high-level research and design. Yes, we need to insure that our young people aim high and fulfill their potential. But we also want the students and workers who aren't destined for MIT to be aware of the full spectrum of STEM opportunities.
So what's message number three for this branding campaign? How could we change perceptions and get more people to picture themselves in STEM careers?
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