High Unemployment and Few Qualified Candidates? It's a Teachable Moment

Bayer MaterialScience's efforts to promote STEM education are elementary -- and much more.

It's a dilemma that confounds executive leadership to plant supervisors, human resource managers to team leaders: How can our job postings go unfilled yet the national unemployment rate is hovering around 9%? The culprit in manufacturing all too often is a pool of candidates who lack the right set of science, math and technical skills for the available work. You might say that lean manufacturing refers to both our processes and a lean head count. Bear in mind the impact that retiring baby boomers will have on our already-stretched labor pool: an estimated 2.7 million manufacturing employees in the United States are 55 or older.

The stakes are high to ensure that the gap between preparation and need doesn't widen further. What's at stake certainly affects individuals but also the ability of our workforce to keep pace with innovations and for our global competitiveness. Strong critical thinking and decision-making skills have increased in importance as technology and operations themselves have evolved.

We must start in elementary school to engage and keep students engaged in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). There are many competing needs for limited resources in our nation's schools and it is easy for students to fall behind in foundational STEM curriculum. For those who focus on STEM coursework, we must compete against the seemingly limitless opportunities in the information technology sector, jobs which send grads to the East and West coasts, not the manufacturing heartland.

These formidable challenges are why Bayer MaterialScience LLC, among others, has an unflagging commitment to STEM education for the long haul. We simply can't leave interest in STEM careers to chance.

Our focus is to engage children in experiential science education -- for their benefit, but also for the benefit of their communities and society as a whole. In our award-winning Making Science Make Sense (MSMS) initiative, we work closely with educators and organizations with the goal to inspire the next generation of innovators and to build scientifically literate citizens, regardless of what career path they choose.

The program was formalized in 1995 and advances science literacy across the United States through support of inquiry-based, hands-on education, employee volunteerism and a public education/advocacy campaign. Integral to our effort are the generous volunteer hours of 1,000 employees.

We don't stop at 12th grade graduation; we can't. At our Baytown, Texas, plant, for example, a decade ago the applicant pool was about 2,000 applications for 20 to 30 jobs. Now, that same search results in about 250 applicants yielding about 40 viable candidates. Today, we work closely with our local technical schools to ensure that curriculum aligns with skill requirements for positions in our facility, enabling qualified graduates to be employed.

Our learnings and discoveries are highlighted in two reference tools called Perspectives on Creating Successful Business Education Partnerships and Planting the Seeds for a Diverse U.S. STEM Pipeline: A Compendium of Best Practice K-12 STEM Education Programs. They can be found on Bayer Material Science's website at www.bayerus.com.

Several of the most powerful ideas for STEM collaborations are the most accessible:

  • Consider offsetting the cost to bring a busload of students in for a plant tour. Many schools can no longer afford such enrichment activities without assistance.
  • Send employees to speak on career days.
  • Establish a job-shadowing event for students at the middle school level. Focus on real-world challenges that your company overcomes with innovative solutions.
  • Send employees into STEM classes and help to dramatically increase the instructor/student ratio. Their involvement can enhance engagement in activities and understanding of new concepts.
  • Establish a mentoring program so minority children who are underrepresented in STEM fields have role models.
  • Pursue local and national partnerships that can help change the way science is taught and learned.
  • Create STEM scholarships for high school students or returning adult learners at the community college level.

STEM curriculum that engages students is vital to ensuring a qualified labor pool today and in the future. Armed with the right human capital, we can remain a ready, willing and able world-class competitor.

Jerry MacCleary is senior vice president and Head, Polyurethanes North America Marketing and Business Development, Bayer MaterialScience LLC.

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