America's skilled workforce is at risk. The needs of our nation's economy are outpacing the skill sets and education of our youth, creating a "gap" in our workforce.
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The trend holds true across all industries, but it is particularly threatening for manufacturing companies. The main problem is that we are not equipping enough young people with sufficient skills in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). As senior vice president of human resources for a Fortune 500 manufacturing company, I experience this problem first-hand.
Modern manufacturing is, by nature, very high tech. Facilities are automated and rely heavily on computerized systems to operate equipment, implement processes, and manage infrastructure. Unfortunately, the surge in technological advances was not coupled with an effort to educate youth, or enable them with skills to execute these complex tasks.
This skill deficit isn’t just a problem for manufacturers; it’s also a lost opportunity for workers. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers settle for low-paying, low-skill jobs because they leave the educational system without the knowledge and training to take manufacturing jobs that often pay professional-level starting wages.
We’re sitting on a tremendous opportunity to support STEM careers in our country and bolster our talent pipeline. We need to rise to the challenge.
Federal and state governments are recognizing the STEM education gap and are starting to take action. In New York, where Corning is headquartered, the state initiated a program that incentivizes degrees in STEM-related fields.
It’s an important first step, and we need more of this type of government action. But we can’t rely solely on the government to fix the STEM gap.
Employers and corporations can proactively inspire youth by supporting programs that build a skilled, talented workforce.
If manufacturing and other industries engage quickly and comprehensively, the American workforce can stage a “STEM comeback.”
In the next decade, nearly all of the top 20 fastest growing occupations will require some background in basic science, technology, engineering and math. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the next 10 years, the U.S. will either need to develop or import more than 2 million skilled production and manufacturing workers. Approximately half of these STEM-related jobs will be in manufacturing, health care, or construction.
At Corning, finding skilled workers for technical positions is a constant challenge. The majority of our materials and processing positions require STEM-related two- and four-year degrees. Salaried engineer positions – specifically those who work in glass, ceramics, controls, and process – are also a challenge to fill. Essentially, the more STEM-intensive the role is, the more difficult it is to fill the position.
But Corning is not alone. The number of U.S. companies that reported difficulty in filling positions due to lack of skills grew from 14 percent to 40 percent in the past three years.
Creating more four-year graduates or people with advanced degrees is helpful, but not the panacea. According to the Brookings Institution, approximately half of all STEM jobs do not require a four-year degree.
In fact, we can narrow much of the “STEM gap” by engaging students, families and communities in ways that don’t require an expensive (and in some cases, unaffordable) four-year degree.
Here are a few of our initiatives at Corning.
Meeting immediate needs through community colleges
One of the best investments a manufacturer can make is to collaborate with local community colleges. Corning has worked for years with several local community colleges to incorporate manufacturing, machine and mechanical technologies into the curriculum. We also take these efforts beyond the classroom so students can receive first-hand experience applying their knowledge. Students spend at least one day a week (even more on spring break!) getting real-time, real-world experience operating Corning equipment and interpreting data. We call it our Technology Pipeline Program.
This two-fold approach has shown tangible results over a short period of time. More than 25 percent of technicians we have hired since 2010 in Corning, N.Y., came from our program at Corning Community College.
Extending reach to primary and secondary schools
While community colleges often provide immediate value in filling the STEM gap, manufacturers also need to work with secondary and even primary schools to inspire our future workforce.
Improving STEM literacy in students provides a sustainable benefit for the entire community while creating a lifetime of opportunity for both learners and employers. We can achieve this in three steps.
The first is to offer supplemental school funding. Corning seeks opportunities to provide direct and targeted assistance for schools in the communities where we work. We provide most of our funding through The Corning Foundation, which has awarded millions of dollars in grants for local schools to fund STEM education programs.
The second step is to partner with schools to develop curriculum that engages students with STEM-related content beyond the standard offerings. At Corning, we have worked with award-winning curriculum specialists at Young Minds Inspired to create an educational program about the role glass could play in technologies of the future.
Third, and just as important, we encourage our most skilled employees to be guest instructors at local schools.
Working locally to change attitudes
While creating educational partnerships is important, we also need to do a better job inspiring students and workers to pursue STEM-related careers. Here, we have fallen woefully short.
Recent research shows that only 44 percent of 12th graders were proficient in math. The story does not end there. Of those who were proficient in math, more than half (61 percent) said they were not interested in pursuing a STEM-related career.
Why are young people not embracing STEM-related jobs? It can’t be money.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM-workers earn approximately 26 percent more than non-STEM counterparts. In fact, the top 10 paying majors for 2013 were all STEM-based, with engineering majors having one of the highest median incomes at $92,000.
The fact is, STEM-related careers have an image problem. Skilled trade workers in manufacturing are in short supply, and I believe it because these jobs are often portrayed as not being “worthy” of pursuit by young people.
Business can help solve the image problem by engaging directly with students in the community through mentorships.
A few years ago, Corning launched a program at Holly Shelter Middle School in Wilmington, N.C. that was designed to engage young girls in math and science. A number of our female engineers went to classrooms and participated in hands-on activities with students. We’re now expanding that program to other schools around our North Carolina facility.
We are also developing a pilot program in the Corning community, recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative, designed to elevate the desirability of manufacturing jobs. Through a series of workshops with youths age 15-21, Corning will provide an overview of the benefits of jobs in manufacturing, take students on an actual plant tour, and expose the participants to testimonials from manufacturing employees. In addition, the program will provide students with an overview of how jobs in manufacturing can be challenging, can offer on-the-job continued professional growth and at the same time provide strong earnings potential.
After the pilot, we will share our program with other employers so they can help us spread the word about the benefits of jobs in manufacturing and at the same time, commit to mentoring, training, and eventually hiring, local youth across the country.
Since instructors, teachers, and professors play a critical role in filling the STEM gap, Corning sponsors awards programs that recognize excellence of STEM educators who go above and beyond to engage and motivate students.
A company’s most precious capital is not its stock price, physical assets, or products. It is a skilled and dedicated workforce, which, sadly, is slipping away for many industries.
But we have shown that it is possible for business to turn the tide for the future of our workforce.
Industry, working together with government and local communities to fund, educate, and inspire the next generation of STEM-proficient workers, can close the “STEM gap” and keep American manufacturing competitive for the long term.
Christine M. Pambianchi was appointed to senior vice president, Human Resources in December 2010. In this role, Pambianchi is responsible for leading Corning’s global human resource function. Christy has led the HR function since January 2008 when she was named vice president, Human Resources. Pambianchi was named division vice president, Business Human Resources in July 2004. Prior to that appointment, Pambianchi was director, Business Human Resources, where she supported many of Corning’s Operating Divisions.
Pambianchi started with Corning in 2000 as division human resource manager, Corning Optical Fiber, and went on to be director, Human Resources, Corning Optical Communications before moving into her recent assignments. Prior to working at Corning Incorporated, Pambianchi worked at PepsiCo, Incorporated for ten years. While at PepsiCo, Pambianchi held human resource manager positions in plant and regional distribution locations and worked as the organization capability manager for the field sales organizations. Her last position at PepsiCo was director, Human Resources for Information Technology.
Pambianchi holds a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Pambianchi serves as president of the board of directors at the Alternative School for Math and Science; is a member of the board of trustees of the Corning Foundation; and a member of the advisory board of the Cornell Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies (CAHRS).