For years, the U.S. has been losing ground to other countries in the race for qualified workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the so-called STEM fields.
It's not that American kids start out any less curious about the world than kids abroad, but they clearly are not getting the kind of motivation they need.
National Volunteer Week, which recently concluded, provided a perfect opportunity for local scientists, tech professionals and business leaders to share their enthusiasm with the next generation of researchers.
The basic numbers are clear enough: On international tests, U.S students are ranked 31st in the world in math. In 2009, when the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ranked countries based on how many of their young workers had STEM degrees, America came in 23rd, well below the OECD average. The U.S. trailed Spain, Portugal and Turkey.
The problem shows up throughout the educational pipeline. By the time they reach 12th grade, only 17 percent of students are both interested in a STEM career and considered "proficient" in math. That's not good enough.
The demographic gaps also are troubling. One-quarter of African-American 12th-graders are interested in STEM but not proficient in math, and only 20 percent of engineering students are female.
Meanwhile, the career opportunities for STEM graduates are rapidly expanding. By 2014, there will be 2.5 million new job openings in these fields. In 2009, STEM workers were paid an average of $77,000 — far above the national average of $43,000.
Companies simply have to find qualified people to stay in business. Multinational corporations headquartered in the U.S. nearly doubled their employment of foreign researchers between 2004 and 2009.
This trend is unlikely to change if we don't act soon. A report from the consulting group, Accenture, informs companies there is "no shortage of talent" in STEM fields — on the "global market," that is. It even suggests intermediary firms might crop up to help match companies with workers throughout the world. Americans should be concerned about the possibility that multinational companies will reach a tipping point where it makes sense to move their operations overseas.
As the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology says, we need to "prepare and inspire" children to go into STEM fields. This is a massive project that will require commitment from schools, parents and communities.
In particular, professionals in STEM-oriented fields from biopharma to tech to aerospace must step up. They have great stories to inspire kids to build on their natural curiosity about the world.
There are countless ways for STEM professionals to get involved — from coaching the math team at a local high school to organizing science fairs to mentoring students and providing internships.
Many STEM companies already are setting a good example. Rockwell Collins, a company that makes high-tech aviation equipment, hosts “Introduce a Girl to Engineering” events, and encourages its employees to visit local classrooms to talk about what they do. Some companies, such as LEGO, provide schools with "STEM kits" — materials that students can use to make robots or other creations using their knowledge of scientific concepts.
Corporations also have teamed up with universities to sponsor regional STEM events for middle and high school students, such as STEMfest at Northern Illinois University and Utah State University's Physics Day. Earlier this year, AT&T teamed up with Youngstown State in Ohio to connect local high school students to STEM internships and mentors.
Raytheon also has been involved in STEM efforts in Virginia. In Alexandria, Raytheon serves on the corporate advisory board for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. We partner with the school through sponsorships and volunteer at STEM-related events throughout the year, such as the Science and Techstravaganza event and the tjSTAR symposium.
All Americans, especially those involved in STEM fields themselves, have a role to play in preparing and inspiring a new generation of scientifically-minded researchers. Although this is a project that will require sustained national attention to succeed, National Volunteer Week is a good time to get going.
Keith J. Peden is senior vice president of Human Resources and Security for Raytheon Company, a major defense contractor with offices in Northern Virginia.