The upcoming STEM series will run throughout September and spotlight local government and private sector executives and their insights about the shortage in STEM workers/local pipeline gap. We’ll publish the stories periodically throughout “SeptSTEMber” in Q&A or feature format.
The greater Washington area employs the largest percentage of STEM workers (18.8 percent in Maryland and 16.5 in Virginia, according to a U.S. Census report), suggesting the area depends heavily on STEM competence for its continued sustainability. And while industry and government execs are eager to hire STEM graduates, the number of U.S. high school seniors who are both proficient and interested in STEM lies at a meager 16 percent.
WashingtonExec recently interviewed Gene Zapfel, Group Vice President, Unisys Federal Systems.
WashingtonExec: When did you become interested in STEM issues?
Gene Zapfel: My interest in STEM goes way back. With undergraduate degrees in physics and engineering, I have always been interested in technical issues and opportunities. Even as I moved ahead in my career and migrated to the business side, my MBA focused in part on managing technical businesses. Since hiring technical staff has been part of my jobs for the last 25 years, I have seen the level and availability of technical talent fail to keep pace with the needs in the market. The positive aspect of this is that people with strong technical training and solid experience can demand higher salaries than non-technical ones can. The bad part is that finding talent to meet business objectives has always been difficult and seems to be getting harder every year. We need to get more people into the technical career pipeline; hence my interest in STEM programs.
WashingtonExec: What do you see as the underlying root of this problem?
Gene Zapfel: I wish I knew the exact root of the problem. I think it’s “all of the above.” But more importantly, I think it’s personal. While we can say that providing more math opportunities to elementary and middle school students will solve the problem, this alone will not even come close to addressing all the complexities of increasing the STEM pipeline. Both my children had the advantage of great schools, good role models and high expectations of their performance. In the end, one chose a technical path and the other a liberal arts path. It truly is an individual issue, and we need to address it at that level.
WashingtonExec: How and where should policymakers be focusing their resources and efforts to augment the pipeline and address the underlying problem?
Gene Zapfel: I don’t envy the policymakers’ dilemma. In a time of shrinking budgets, overtaxed teachers and support staffs, and so many distractions facing young students, the policymakers need to walk the razor’s edge of investing in STEM while balancing the myriad of other demands. For me, keeping schools focused on academics has to be the place to start. While arts, sports and non-academic activities are critical to young people’s development, the academic work done in elementary, middle and high school determines the career paths for the vast majority.
I think a key challenge is to provide insight into the career potentials of various academic pursuits. Not so much to “track” people early, but to make them aware of the impact their choices have on their future. For instance, if students don’t get the foundation for math in the middle school, their college and career options will be impacted.
WashingtonExec: What challenges do you see currently impeding the path to implementing that solution and making STEM reform a priority in the U.S.?
Gene Zapfel: Kids these days are very sophisticated. They have so much more exposure to the broader world than I had at three times their age. However, this exposure does not necessarily come with understanding. Providing an understanding of STEM in a form that students inherently understand will be critical. Of course, this includes using new media but the message is key. I believe this is the hardest part.
WashingtonExec: Why do you care?
Gene Zapfel: As a technically literate adult with grown children, I can see the impact of resources my kids had access to and the result of the choices they made. As I said before, one of my kids went down the technology path but the other did not. By the way, both are now working in software businesses and have exciting careers before them.
I believe that while every child may not choose the STEM path, the path needs to be available to all nonetheless.
Click here to read the first interview in WashingtonExec’s SeptSTEMber series with Janet Foutty of Deloitte Federal.