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Planting the Seeds of STEM

GE's Brilliant Career Lab puts cutting-edge technology in the hands of tomorrow's workforce.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016
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For an economy that's been mired in a somewhat sluggish recovery, the news coming out of the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the spring of 2014 seemed immensely positive. In "STEM 101: Intro to Tomorrow's Jobs," the agency projected that jobs in occupations related to STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- would surge to more than nine million between 2012 and 2022, an increase of approximately one million jobs over 2012 employment levels.

The seemingly good news was quickly tempered by a dose of reality. While the need was there, a sufficient pool of people who possessed the requisite skills was not. According to The Global STEM Paradox, a 2015 white paper published by the New York Academy of Sciences and prepared with Boston-based consulting firm FSG Inc., U.S. recruiters are struggling to find candidates for 75 percent of jobs that will require middle- or high-level STEM skills by 2018.

"Competition is faster, the lifecycle of technology is faster, and the pace at which the demand for new skills is growing is pretty crazy," says John Sumser, principal analyst at HRx Analysts and editor-in-chief of HRExaminer in Bodega Bay, Calif. "Everywhere you look, there's a demand for new skills that haven't been trained in the schools because the academic system hasn't kept up with the pace of technology."

While there's clearly a shortage of individuals with STEM skills, there is no shortage of initiatives designed to boost interest in the STEM fields. Verizon, Cisco, Goldman Sachs, AT&T and others have partnered with colleges, universities and public-school systems to encourage students to consider STEM-related careers. Unfortunately, such initiatives often fall short because they fail to have a clear mission, says Dani Johnson, vice president and learning and development research leader, Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting in Oakland, Calif.

"The organizations that are most successful are going in, saying, ‘We see this skill gap in the next five years and we are going to partner with educational institutions to make sure the skills that are taught are absolutely applicable to the jobs (the students will) be going into,'" says Johnson.

Seeking to prepare students for "innovative digital industrial jobs of the future," General Electric Co. has partnered with Boston Public Schools to launch the Brilliant Career Lab, a first-of-its-kind interactive mobile lab that takes cutting-edge technology directly to the students. The initiative is a centerpiece of the GE Foundation's $25 million investment in Boston Public Schools and in the city, as the company moves its headquarters to Boston after more than four decades in Fairfield, Conn.

The brightly painted lab-on-wheels sets up shop for roughly two weeks at each Boston high school. During that time, students rotate through, spending short blocks of time in the lab, where they enjoy hands-on experiences with advanced manufacturing technology, including 3-D printers, laser cutters, milling machines, and programming tools.

While other organizations have offered students a similar opportunity, Kelli Wells, executive director of education and skills, GE, says such endeavors typically failed to demonstrate any alignment to career possibilities.

"Students had the opportunity to tinker and explore, but they never understood how that could translate to a job," says Wells. "They were not gaining an in-depth understanding of the STEM careers and opportunities and the pathways to reach those careers."

GE sought to avoid that pitfall by making the Brilliant Career Lab about much more than tinkering with cool technology. During their mobile lab experience, students are introduced to five "futuristic, technology-oriented career areas" -- biomedical engineering, machinery, airplane mechanics, software/game development, and wearable technology design. According to Wells, the latter was intentionally designed to appeal to female students who may have a desire to go into fashion design, but don't understand how that interest could be parlayed into a STEM-related career.

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"If you can spark the interest, that's the hard thing," says Sumser. "The effectiveness of a program has less to do with the specific technology it showcases and more to do with its ability to light a fire underneath kids."

Students take the Brilliant Career Lab experience back with them into the classroom, where a specially designed curriculum enables them to begin developing the necessary skills for their newly discovered career goal. According to Tommy Chang, superintendent of Boston Public Schools, the initiative will play a key role in making the "City of Champions" a leader in preparing students for the workplace of tomorrow.  

"The Brilliant Career Lab opens a door for Boston students by providing a new – and engaging - level of technology and skills-preparedness training," says Chang. "We are proud to be working with the GE Foundation to bring valuable, educational tools to students that will help prepare them to enter the workforce, and in turn, bring value back to communities across our city."

According to Wells, GE will spend the next year collecting data and eliciting feedback from students before taking the Brilliant Career Lab to other cities. In the meantime, Johnson expects to see more employers partnering with school systems to help students make the connection between fun, fascinating technology and a promising career path.

 "This is the way education is moving," says Johnson. "It's vital that we move away from traditional classroom types of training and do much more application to get people ready to work as soon as they have finished school."

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