Purpose, Inc., episode 1.11: Ashley Szofer of STEMconnector
Key takeaway: “It is imperative that leaders are looking at (STEM) talent pools like rural communities, like people of color, women and investing their resources in those communities.”
“There isn’t just one STEM talent gap,” Ashley Szofer, senior director of external relations and strategic brand engagement at STEMconnector, told host Michael Young in this episode of the Purpose, Inc., podcast. “It’s a confluence of five gaps that come together to create what we know and consider the STEM talent gap.”
STEMconnector is a research-driven organization devoted to building talent pipelines in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professions. Its 2018 “State of STEM” report investigated the reasons behind why so many companies struggle to find and retain STEM professionals. The five talent gaps the report identified:
- Demographic gap: a disproportionate lack of women and people of color in STEM jobs
- Geographic gap: divergence between the areas where talent lives and STEM jobs are plentiful
- Fundamental skills gap: young adults graduating from high school without the literacy and numeracy they need for STEM jobs
- Postsecondary education gap: employers looking for credentials that many students can’t navigate their way to acquire
- Belief gap: stereotypes and cultural norms that prevent young people from seeing what they are capable of
None of these gaps work in isolation, the former Chicago high school teacher emphasized: “If you’re an African-American boy living on the South Side of Chicago, it’s possible that you’ve never seen an engineer who looks like you.”
Solving the STEM talent gap
“I believe that corporations and employers have a huge role to play in preparing the future workforce,” Ashley said. It’s not just the responsibility of the K-12 educational system. “Without the influence of industry leaders and employers, K-12 doesn’t have access to the right resources and the right networks to actually make sure they are preparing students.” Companies can contribute to after-school STEM programming, she suggested. They can also encourage employees to volunteer as role models and mentors, inspiring students to see the possibilities within STEM.
“We know from industry leaders they can’t get the talent that they need just from looking at traditional talent pools, the universities that they usually pull from, the majors they usually pull from,” she said. “It is imperative that those leaders are looking at traditionally overlooked talent pools like rural communities, people of color, and women and investing their resources in those communities to ensure that the talent pipeline is robust and sustainable.”
Bringing more women into STEM
The gender gap in STEM careers is particularly glaring: Women make up only 24 percent of the STEM workforce, Ashley told Michael, and half of those women will leave this workforce segment within 10 years. STEMconnector set out to create opportunities to help women build their confidence in pursuing STEM careers and leadership positions, and to communicate to men that their encouragement and support of women is vital.
The organization launched the Million Women Mentors initiative in 2015. Thanks to state governments, the participation of 50 corporate sponsors, and millions of volunteers in 40 states, the initiative has facilitated more than 1.7 mentoring relationships with girls and women to date. It now has chapters in countries such as Ireland, Mexico, India, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.
Key to all these efforts is bringing stakeholders in government, education, and many different industries together to solve the talent gap. “It’s not about competition here. It’s very much about collaboration,” she concludes. “This is something that benefits everybody.”