Education And A Tech Workforce Need Collaboration To Thrive

“As a tech company I can think of no better way to help ensure a strong workforce for the future than being a mentor in Utah classrooms.”

This article appears in the Fall 2017 issue of Silicon Slopes Magazine. For the print version, subscribe to Utah Business Magazine and you will automatically be sent a quarterly copy of Silicon Slopes Magazine.

“Within Utah we have this booming tech industry,” says Kellie Yates, STEM Liaison between the STEM Action Center and the USOE (Utah State Office of Education). “But we don’t have a workforce that’s comfortable with STEM to fill all of these jobs. Companies are now having to go to other states and countries to find talent to fill these jobs.”

Yates’ statement reflects the feelings of most of Utah’s tech industry leaders, many of whom sit on the STEM Action Center board and help Yates and her colleagues identify the needs of the tech industry workforce. The board also helps identify what current education curriculum lacks in filling those needs.

After identification, the STEM Action Center and industry partners work to implement educational practices that will help Utah’s rising generation to not only receive a robust education, but eventually obtain satisfying and well-paying jobs in Utah’s thriving tech industry.

Yates explains that when people talk of jobs in the tech industry, they aren’t just talking jobs for coders. Nearly any position within a Utah-based company requires at the very least a basic understanding of STEM skills. And implementing the needed educational practices does not mean teaching kids to code all day every day. Teaching tech does not mean teaching a niche trade, but instead means teaching a way of thinking. As Domo Vice President of Human Resources Cathy Donahoe says, “Tech is all about executing ideas and what it takes to drive an idea through to a business.”

Yates explains that teaching STEM concepts goes beyond just teaching kids a trade or skill. True STEM mastery means an understanding of why a skill works. “If we’re just giving students an idea without a context to study it within, then it’s just a nice idea. But if we just teach the skills, all we’ve taught them is how to solve a problem with a very limited range. We haven’t taught them how to apply those skills in the real world. If we teach students only a specific set of skills we’re really limiting their capabilities. If we give them ideas, they can transfer those skills to other arenas.”

Many of these ideas and skills focus on problem solving and allowing students to come up with solutions to problems that haven’t been tried before. “We want kids to be able to work cooperatively and work in groups well. We want them to learn how to persevere, take a risk, have something not work, learn from that experience, and not get discouraged,” Yates says. “We want them to develop and capitalize on skills like creative thinking, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication.” These are the skills that will help students excel in any workplace.

In terms of more defined content skills, Yates says every student needs a solid math background and a familiarity with how quantities work. Yates explains that recent changes in math and science curriculum are getting students to do more instead of just know more. “They need to know how to reason through the information they’re receiving and then take it from there,” she says.

Change, however, is slow and resources in education are far from abundant. “There’s a disconnect between what we want our students to be able to do and what we are able to offer our teachers,” Yates explains. “Teachers don’t necessarily have the time or skills to take whatever ideas and implement them right away. We’ve definitely made good strides, but we’re not even close to done yet.”

We can get closer by helping teachers. Yates encourages tech community members to volunteer to mentor teachers. She explains that when she was a teacher, she didn’t want to expose any ignorance, but that technology changes so quickly she wasn’t immersed enough to fully understand what students needed to learn to master the ever-evolving tech. “It’s terrifying to go to someone in an industry and acknowledge that you don’t have enough information,” she says. “Be willing to take on a teacher as someone you mentor. Get into a classroom and get a better understanding of what teachers are doing so you can better support your education community.”

Sandra Hemmert, Granite Technical Institute District CTE Coordinator, says her organization offers summer internships to teachers so they can actually spend time in fields whose subjects they will be teaching. The institute also invites industry professionals to guest teach in classrooms. “The biggest conflict is when you don’t take time to let a teacher feel successful,” Hemmert says.

Hemmert advises industry leaders to go to their local school districts, find the career and technical director in those districts, and ask to get involved. “A lot of what we’re doing is trying to get industry to come to us. We need industry setting the stage and target for what they need. If you’re not coming in, you might be in trouble,” Hemmert says. “In the past, educators have defined what the needed skills are, but now it’s important for industry leaders to come to the table and help identify the skills they need in their workforce.”

In addition to helping teachers with time and mentorship, and helping districts identify curriculum needs, we can help students understand what working in the tech industry actually means and why that ambition is something to get excited about, then develop streamlined methods to help them succeed. “Unless students already have direct work experience, it can be hard for them to envision what a career in any given industry might look like,” says Kimberlee Carlile, Director of Industry and Talent Initiatives at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED). “Our goal is to increase awareness among students so they know what options they can pursue. Work-based learning and hands-on education programs are by far the best way to expose students to exciting career opportunities.”

Carlile knows hands-on education programs are the best way to expose students to exciting career opportunities because she’s seen it work in our state before. “Utah businesses in aerospace manufacturing, diesel tech, and life science have led the way in creating innovative work-based learning programs that connect high school students and adult learners with education pathways to quality, high-paying jobs. These career pathways programs are celebrated as best practices. Now software and technology companies are stepping up to solve their unique workforce challenges while inspiring the next generation of IT professionals.”

Volunteering time, resources, and know-how benefits not only teachers and students, but the entire tech community as well. “Not only is helping young kids in school with their STEM education the right thing to do, today’s prospective employees want to work for companies who give back to the community in meaningful ways,” explains Dell EMC Executive and STEM education advocate Vance Checketts. “We all have friends, neighbors or family members who benefit when we give back and many of them are connected to our current and prospective employees. As a tech company I can think of no better way to help ensure a strong workforce for the future than being a mentor in Utah classrooms.”

Checketts adds that getting involved helps not only the future workforce but the current workforce as well. “Our Dell EMC Utah team loves to help students in elementary, middle and high school. Sharing information about the plentiful, exciting and diverse jobs in our company and our industry is motivating to the kids as well as team members. They come back to work more engaged and satisfied,” he says. “Our team members feel valued when we ask them to represent the company. Doing this while also giving back through educational partnerships in our local school districts is icing on the cake!”

The more the tech industry gets involved in education, the more the future of Silicon Slopes is secure. “We’re really help kids develop skills that will help them be successful when they leave school. I’ve never seen a time like right now. I think it’s really exciting,” says Sandra Hemmert.

The launch of the STEM Mentor Exchange, and Governor Herbert’s recent IT Pathways announcement add to that excitement, but we need the industry’s support. Share in the excitement and call your district. Or download the STEM Mentor Exchange app. Or ask your kids’ teachers what they wish they had in their classrooms and how you can help — it’s time to prepare Utah’s future workforce for tomorrow.

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