STEM-ing the Tide

Facing a shortage of skilled technology workers, employers are adopting a multi-faceted approach to filling the science, technology, engineering and math pipeline.

Thursday, September 4, 2014
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Founded in Berlin in 1847, Siemens AG has grown to become Europe's largest engineering company and manufacturer of medical-diagnostics equipment. The Munich, Germany-based multinational and its subsidiaries employ 360,000 people in more than 130 manufacturing plants across nearly 200 countries. Clearly, the firm is well-versed in science-and-engineering recruiting.

But when the company sought to expand its Charlotte, N.C., generator and steam-turbine plant to include a gas-turbine facility in 2011, it hit a hiring snafu.

The expansion required Siemens to hire an additional 1,500 people, nearly tripling its existing Charlotte workforce of 800. Since many of the area's textile companies had shut down, the area was rich with unemployed people eager for a new opportunity. But while nearly 10,000 people submitted applications through the Siemens website, the vast majority didn't have the requisite science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- or STEM -- skills.

"We're talking about very basic STEM-related skills -- math and applied technologies," says Mike Panigel, senior vice president and chief human resource officer for Siemens Corporate Human Resources U.S./Americas, based in Washington. "The bodies were there, but the skills were not. We had to find a mechanism to address it."

That mechanism came in the form of a partnership with Central Piedmont Community College, also located in Charlotte. CPCC instructors worked with Siemens to develop a specialized Pre-Employment Readiness course to prepare out-of-work individuals for jobs in Siemens' newly expanded facility. The company put 3,500 of the 10,000 applicants through the program, which focused on "imparting basic STEM skills to that populace," says Panigel. At the end of the course, successful participants were awarded "career-readiness certificates." Four hundred of them found employment with Siemens, while the rest were free to use their newfound skills to find a job elsewhere.

"This became the tool by which we could recruit and bring people into our organization," says Panigel. "If we could not have gotten people trained to work in that facility, it would have been a business catastrophe."

Siemens is far from the only company plagued by a shortage of workers qualified in the STEM disciplines. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly 4 million U.S. jobs remain open, despite 12 million workers on the unemployment rolls. Clearly, Panigel says, that disparity is due to a lack of STEM skills among both displaced workers and recent college graduates.

Indeed, an October 2013 survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development polled 166,000 adults ages 16 to 65 across 24 countries, finding the United States ranking 21st out of 23 countries in math and 17th out of 19 countries in problem solving. The resulting report, Time for the U.S. to Reskill -- What the Survey of Adult Skills Says, warns the United States could "progressively fall behind other countries if it does not take concerted action to address the adult-skills challenge."

Faced with such dire warnings, employers are responding with a variety of approaches, ranging from partnerships with community colleges and apprenticeships to teacher training and student competitions designed to identify and reward -- and perhaps even recruit -- the next generation of STEM superstars.

Shortage or Surplus?

Not everyone believes there truly is a shortage of STEM-qualified workers, however. John Sumser, principal analyst at Bodega Bay, Calif.-based HRx Analysts and editor-in-chief of HRExaminer, not only scoffs at the notion of a STEM shortage, he claims there is actually a STEM surplus, an assertion he backs up by pointing to the fact that STEM-reliant businesses are racking up profits rather than closing their doors.

"The best evidence of a shortage would be declining revenues in companies that depend on STEM workers," says Sumser. "If there were really a gazillion jobs out there [that couldn't be filled], you would hear stories of companies failing or projects that were not being completed on time. I don't think there's any evidence of that at all."

Sumser concedes there are a plethora of STEM jobs listed on job boards, but argues that such activity is often artificial, undertaken by companies seeking to "fake out the competition," test the waters to see what kind of talent would be interested in job-hopping, or dangle their lure in the water until "just the right person comes along."

While he insists there is no widespread shortage of STEM talent, Sumser admits there are regional differences in skill sets that may hinder a company's recruiting initiatives in certain geographic areas.

"The imbalance in STEM talent varies from city to city," says Sumser. "In Silicon Valley, there's no shortage because Berkeley and Stanford and San Francisco State, and all the other state universities and colleges, turn out a lot of people with interests and aptitudes around the STEM disciplines. But if you want to start a STEM-style company in Fargo, N.D., you're going to have to bring the talent with you."

While Panigel points to Siemens' Charlotte facility as a "very real and tangible example" of the STEM skills shortage, he is quick to stress that the STEM hiring crisis is widespread for the company. According to Panigel, 45 percent of Siemens employees are engaged in "some form of STEM activity," and STEM jobs are growing three times faster than any others. On any given day, he says, Siemens has 3,000 to 3,500 job openings throughout its U.S. facilities that cannot immediately be filled with existing job-seekers.

"Clearly, there's a gap and it comes down to [the fact that] a lot of the people who are currently unemployed do not have the skills to fill these jobs," says Panigel. "I have an issue in recruiting, in that I don't have a plethora of talent I can tap into."

Learning While Earning

Faced with a similar shortfall throughout its operations, The Brose Group -- a Coburg, Bavaria, Germany-based manufacturer of systems for vehicle doors, life gates, seat structures, and electric drives to more than 100 car makers and suppliers worldwide -- signed on as one of three "developer companies" for the Michigan Advanced Technician Training program, an initiative of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation in Lansing, Mich. The hybrid apprenticeship/degree program relies on a combination of classroom learning and on-the-job training to ignite young peoples' interest in technical careers and prepare them for jobs in mechatronics, a combination of electrical, mechanical and electronic competencies.

Abbreviated MAT2 and pronounced "MAT squared," the program is a partnership between MEDC, two area community colleges and 11 businesses operating in Southeastern Michigan. It was borne out of a trip Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder took to Germany, where he witnessed firsthand how the country's "dual education system" resulted in a tremendous pipeline of talent. Upon his return to the United States, Snyder charged the MEDC with replicating the program in Michigan.

When it came time to recruit employers for the program, it was no coincidence Brose was chief among them. Snyder had visited one of the manufacturer's facilities in Germany, where Brose actively trains more than 300 young people as mechatronics technicians, industrial clerks, tool makers, electronics technicians, technical product designers and plant operators each year. The company jumped at the opportunity, as did Cadillac Products Automotive Co., Detroit Diesel Corp., Proper Group International and seven others.

The 11 employers partnered with instructors from Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Mich., and Oakland Community College in Southfield, Mich. Together, they laid the groundwork for MAT2, identifying necessary skills and competencies, determining what coursework would aid in the development of those skills and competencies, and then developing curriculum for those courses. 

In order to be accepted into the program, students go through a stringent application and selection process. Applicants are required to provide a resume and complete an ACT Compass test to assess their basic skills in reading, writing, math and English as a second language, if applicable.

A company job fair gives students and employers the chance to meet face-to-face and participate in on-site interviews. More formal interviews often follow at the employer's headquarters.

While the majority of participants are recruited from area high schools and colleges, the program is open to nearly all Michigan residents at any stage in their careers.

"For somebody who has been doing this kind of work already and has a lot of experience, this may not be the best fit for them, but certainly for someone who has not had a lot of exposure to the STEM fields, this is a fabulous opportunity to jump in and get some hands-on experience and be able to build those competencies," says Jacqui Mieksztyn, manager of talent programs and talent enhancement for MEDC. "For the employer, it's an opportunity to try before they buy."

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Competition for the program has been fierce -- and for good reason. Participating employers not only cover their chosen students' full cost of tuition, they also pay them an hourly wage for the time they spend on the job. There is no limit to the number of students a given employer can sponsor.

This past September, MAT2's inaugural class of 31 students began the three-year program, spending nine weeks in the classroom before reporting for nine weeks of duty at their sponsoring employer.

Brose chose to sponsor four students, who will rotate not only between jobs, but between all three of Brose's Michigan locations -- Auburn Hills, Warren and New Boston -- as they gain the real-life experiences that sets the MAT2 program apart from other STEM-oriented employer-college collaborations, according to Stefan Politis, Brose's vice president of human resources, North America.

"It makes no sense to teach them something in the company that's totally disconnected [from] what they learned at the college," says Politis. "We go to great lengths to ensure that the contents of the lessons are aligned with the real-life experiences they gain here."

Upon successful completion of the program, participants will receive an advanced associate's degree, along with a guaranteed job. (Students are required to commit to working a minimum of two years with their sponsoring employer upon graduation.)

Investing in Generation Next

In Redmond, Wash., Microsoft Corp. has invested heavily in ensuring STEM readiness among the next generation of workers through its Partners in Learning initiative, a $750-million, 15-year commitment to making sure teachers are sufficiently trained to "infuse technology into the classroom," according to Allyson Knox, director of education policy and programs, U.S. government affairs. Other programs include Technology Education and Literacy in Schools, a "grass-roots initiative" that places technology professionals from Microsoft and other companies inside high-school classes where, Knox says, they serve as part-time co-teachers, "lifting the curriculum off the page, providing real-world examples and serving as role models for the kids."

Knox says the number of students passing the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam has increased dramatically in those schools where the TEALS program has been instituted.

The technology giant also founded the Microsoft IT Academy, which gives teachers and students the opportunity to become certified in various groups of software, such as Microsoft Office, at a significantly reduced cost. The program has been remarkably successful. In North Carolina alone, the number of certified students has surged from 400 to 12,000 since the state launched the program in late 2010. According to Knox, the program performs a key role in that it exposes kids who wouldn't ordinarily consider STEM careers to the possibility of a technology job.

"You see kids who wouldn't ordinarily see themselves as technologists, but once they pass the first exam, their confidence and self-efficacy soars and the next thing you know, they want to take the next certification," says Knox. "That's how STEM really grows."

Siemens has a long history of encouraging students to explore the STEM fields. For the past 15 years, the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology has recognized significant achievements in the STEM disciplines by American high-school students. This past year's four grand-prize winners each received a $100,000 scholarship. Their submissions included research on potential new anti-flu drugs and the identification of a previously overlooked gene that could help protect major crops against environmental damage.

While Siemens doesn't actively recruit from the pool of competition winners, the company endeavors to stay in very strong, close contact with these bright young scholars. According to Panigel, it's just one component of a multi-faceted strategy to help ensure Siemens is prepared for the coming "manufacturing renaissance." So far, he's confident the company is on the right track.

"There is absolutely a realization that we've got to start investing in this area," says Panigel.

"Now," he says, "it's a matter of heads down and let's work on it and ... get it done."

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