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Tech Companies — Your Best Investment is K-12 STEM Education

by Dean Zerbe, Former Senior Counsel to the U.S. Senate Finance Committee; alliantgroup National Managing Director

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By Dean Zerbe, National Managing Director, alliantgroup

The United States is facing an unprecedented teacher shortage, with almost half (44%) of public schools reporting teacher vacancies this year.

With fewer teachers renewing their contracts and resources slimming for students, US public schools’ ability to provide STEM education will continue to lag, further dulling the US’ competitive edge globally in science and engineering.

The effort to fill this gap has so far mostly fallen on the public education system, but private tech companies should be equally as concerned about the long-term impact these shortages will have on the US STEM talent pipeline of tomorrow. Children given the resources and attention to excel in STEM at the K-12 level will become the tech leaders of tomorrow, so private tech companies must integrate support for public, private and charter education into their business plans.

By focusing on targeted resource, program, and partnership investments both inside and out of US schools, private companies can create a robust talent pipeline to continue spurring innovation and growth.

What’s in it for Tech Companies?

According to a recent White House report, over the past 15 years the US has produced only 10% of the world’s science and engineering grads, but with shortages dragging on, that number can very well go down.

This shortage of graduates in STEM fields can be connected to the currently over-crowded classrooms, condensed courses, and shallow budgets across the nation that constrict K-12 schools from providing access to STEM subjects. K-12 schools are the main arena in which children in the US are exposed to STEM concepts, so if early exposure is not frequent or exciting, schools risks alienating many potential future engineers, software developers, scientists, etc.

The tech industry needs every STEM grad possible as its current skills gap is only expected to worsen. The US is projected to have a deficit of 6 million skilled workers by 2030, so it’s imperative for private tech companies to invest in fostering diverse tech talent at the earliest stages to build the workforce of tomorrow.

Supporting Programs in Schools

Fostering tech talent from a young age will involve collaboration and financial investment from tech companies to bolster the basic pillars of the education system and enhance them with specialized programs.

A tech business’ involvement in subsidizing early education should start with direct support. This could range from helping to fund more STEM teachers or assistants and rehabilitating classrooms to ensuring that science classrooms are adequately equipped with the right supplies or even sponsoring field trips to the local science museum.

Before proposing any flashier projects, tech companies should also designate a company representative to interact with the local schools – public, charter and private – to better understand and cater to their immediate needs.

Beyond support for the basic needs of educators, tech companies can contribute grants to recognize exceptional STEM teachers, which could help boost morale among a shrinking teaching workforce. In addition to paying for new educational science equipment, companies could also donate some of their old lab materials, connecting the subjects students learn to real-world applications.

At the high school level, tech businesses can sponsor vocational technical (VoTech) training programs to help students specialize in technology-related fields and prepare for a future career. VoTech programs are much needed at underserved schools, where exposure to the right vocation could inspire a more diverse crop of students to explore previously unknown potential careers. One possible model is Generation, a non-profit created by McKinsey, which uses a bootcamp model to train and place underserved students in jobs in over 63 cities and across 20 professions, with an 83% job placement rate.

Fostering Learning Outside of the Classroom

Tech companies also have an opportunity to create excitement for STEM careers through outside events and programs.

Schools have historically cut field trips when money is tight, so tech firms can help boost creativity outside of the classroom by sponsoring, and even hosting, visits to museums, nature preserves, their own science labs, etc.

Tech companies could also send representatives into classrooms to discuss their careers. For those students who have never met a computer programmer before or pick a chemical engineer’s brain, these encounters can illuminate new paths for them they may not have previously considered.

Thinking bigger, work/learn programs outside of school, such as internships for older high school students or recent graduates, can bolster tech companies’ pipeline for entry-level talent. More importantly, these programs will be key to providing better access to alternate career pathways in the K-12 environment, ensuring that students don’t waste their time and money on an education program that fails to prepare them for the future of work.

Finally, tech businesses can achieve additional exposure through hackathons and expos, bringing together all students in the district for fun competitions and activities that infuse STEM learning.

The Future STEM Workforce

In the face of lagging STEM scores compared to our counterparts in East Asia and Europe, it’s in everyone’s best interest to bolster the US STEM education pipeline.

Through providing targeted resources and programs both in and outside of schools, tech companies have the opportunity to boost interest in STEM and ensure more graduates eventually enter their workforce.

Private tech businesses have the power and influence to inspire current students, and those that invest in STEM education now will see incredible dividends for years to come.

About the Author

Dean Zerbe is alliantgroup’s National Managing Director based in the firm’s Washington D.C. office. Prior to joining alliantgroup, Mr. Zerbe was Senior Counsel and Tax Counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance. He worked closely with then-Chairman and current Ranking Member of the Finance Committee, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), on tax legislation. During his tenure on the Finance Committee, Mr. Zerbe was intimately involved with nearly every major piece of tax legislation that was signed into law – including the 2001 and 2003 tax reconciliation bills, the JOBS bill in 2004 (corporate tax reform), and the Pension Protection Act. Mr. Zerbe is a frequent speaker and author on the outlook for short-term and long-term changes in tax policy, as well as ways accounting firms can help their clients lower their tax bill. He holds an LL.M. in Taxation from NYU and a J.D. from George Mason University.