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How Can Massachusetts Diversify and Build its STEM Workforce?

Post Date: 10.25.2019

How Can Massachusetts Diversify and Build its STEM Workforce?

Jackney Prioly Joseph (center), director of Career Readiness Initiatives at the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, speaks about industry recognized credentials during the panel. Listening are (l-r) Massachusetts Life Sciences Center President and CEO Travis McCready; Burlington Schools Superintendent Eric Conti; BioStrategy Advisors LLC Founder Carolina Alarco; and Secretary of Education James Peyser.

Hands-on learning, employer partnerships and building skill pathways are among the most important actions the state can take to address the diversity gap in STEM occupations, panelists said at a Massachusetts STEM Week event on Oct. 24 hosted by The Boston Foundation.

Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Rosalin Acosta provided a brief overview of Commonwealth Corporation’s “See Yourself in STEM” research brief, which laid out workforce data that illustrates the lagging diversity in STEM jobs.

For instance, gender representation in Massachusetts STEM jobs is just about equal—49.5% women, 50.5% men—but within the four occupational categories, there are major differences. Women hold 77% of health care practitioner & technician jobs, but only 26% of computer & mathematical jobs and 15% of architecture & engineering jobs. Also, fewer women are receiving engineering or computing degrees and even fewer are pursuing jobs in those fields after attaining such a degree.

Acosta called the figures around women obtaining those degrees and not going into those fields “stunning.” She recently visited a high school junior classroom where students were working on a robotics experiment.

“I looked around the room … there was not one girl in that class. Something’s wrong with that,” Acosta said. “Obviously something is happening to discourage girls from continuing on this path.”

When it comes to race and ethnic representation, 76% of STEM workers in Massachusetts are white, close to the overall state job average of 77%, but like the data around gender, this again masks other differences. Hispanic/Latinx are underrepresented in all STEM occupations, black/African Americans are underrepresented in non-health care occupations, and Asians are overrepresented in the non-health care occupations. As with women when looking at specific STEM degree majors, black/African Americans and Hispanic/Latinx workers tend to have smaller shares of STEM-related degrees and even when they have such degrees, they are less likely to have related STEM jobs.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito stressed in her opening remarks that with Massachusetts’ innovation economy continuing to grow, and with it the number of STEM-related job openings, it is critical to have enough skilled people to fill those jobs. Meeting that demand means accelerating the talent pipeline and diversifying the workforce in the innovation economy.

Accelerating the talent pipeline is a combination of three C’s, Polito said: classroom, curriculum and connections.

“When I was growing up it was more about, ‘here’s the content, I’m going to memorize it and take a test,” she said. “Applied learning, hands-on learning is clearly the best approach to helping kids develop skills content-wise, but also around problem solving and critical thinking. And while we transform the classroom with our capital investments, bringing in CNC machines and 3D printers, we need to think about how to get students into the workplace. That’s what we hear from employers everywhere we go.”

Secretary of Education James Peyser said on the panel that the state’s STEM Advisory Council seeks to provide foundational skills and experiences to all K-12 students—in particular around applied learning—to develop pathways for students and to foster employer partnerships. He cited Massachusetts’ progress on early pathway development through investments via Skills Capital Grants in vocational schools, community colleges, and occupational training programs.

“At some level, the academic community can take us only so far,” Peyser said. “We need to have that connection to the employers who can provide those work-based learning experiences, and then also show students the way to the future as to what their own possibilities can be. These pathways are not just pathways to further study, but toward their career.”

The “See Yourself in STEM” Research Brief for Massachusetts STEM Week 2019.

Those pathways don’t always end with obtaining an advanced degree, either. The See Yourself in STEM research brief points out that one out of five STEM jobs only require a postsecondary certificate or associate’s degree.

Travis McCready, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, said a person can get an associate’s degree and work at one of the many growing biomanufacturing plants in Massachusetts with a starting wage of $80,000 a year. Or, someone could work at the Depuy Synthes manufacturing plant in Raynham that manufactures 85% of the artificial knee systems in North America.

“The skill set necessary [for that work] is not a PhD,” McCready said. “We spend a lot of time trying to educate you about the depth and breadth of opportunity in this ecosystem. … Some of this we’ll lay at the feet of our students, but we need to be smarter about what this range of opportunity is so we can continue to coach and encourage our kids.”

Industry recognized credentials are one tool that empowers young people to pursue a career in STEM without necessarily requiring an advanced degree, according to Jackney Prioly Joseph, director of Career Readiness Initiatives at the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. Those credentials signify the accumulation of technical skills and knowledge useful to employers, and they’re “globally portable,” Prioly Joseph said.

“Currently, we have top notch vocational schools in Mass. What we can do is learn from them,” she said. “Employers look to them to provide them with the employees who have the right skills. If we can expand that to more students in the Commonwealth, we’d see a lot more students being prepared for these jobs.”

It’s also important to help women, people of color and others underrepresented in STEM continue along career pathways once they enter the field, according to Carolina Alarco, founder and principal of BioStrategy Advisors LLC and a co-founder of Latinos in Bio.

Alarco cited a Massachusetts Biotechnology Council report on gender in the workplace that said in entry-level positions, biotechnology and life sciences have a generally even split between men and women. However, at the level of function head and beyond, including C-level and board positions, there is a huge disparity, with 75 percent of the C-level positions in life sciences and 85 percent of the board positions filled by men. It requires a change of culture within companies and training on equal treatment, she said.

“I think that basically reflects a lot of what kids decide to study or not. When they decide to pick a career, they also look at the industry and workplace, and if that particular career is not welcoming to women, they’re going to know that and not want to go into studying for a STEM career,” Alarco said. “I think we can get women who have been successful in STEM careers come to high schools and to encourage other women to pursue STEM careers.”

Hearkening back to the Lieutenant Governor’s remarks on changing the classroom dynamic and evolving curriculum, Burlington Schools Superintendent Eric Conti said that his district is focusing on computational, algorithmic thinking because “we believe it’s the new literacy.” He pointed out that the science pathway of biology, chemistry and then physics introduced in 1890 still exists in schools today, and those topics are only in that order because it was alphabetical.

“It’s not that all these students are new computer scientists, per se,” Conti said. “We want every citizen to be a healthy, learned and moral citizen, and that is going to need some knowledge in computer science because it’s going to impact their lives. Our students need to not only learn how to use the devices … they need to know how the devices work.”