The nation is facing an unprecedented shortage of workers with education and skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, with some estimates pegging the shortfall at about 2.4 million unfilled positions by 2020. The only answer to this pressing challenge, according to a group of women technology leaders from government and industry, is to adjust the education system so that children — especially girls — are taught at a younger age that STEM subjects are both cool and important to society.
“We need to start very young,” said Veda Woods, chief information security officer and deputy chief information officer at the Recovery Accountability & Transparency Board, which currently oversees the use of relief funds for Hurricane Sandy victims. “Not when they’re actually in college and going to school, but when they’re in preschool and they show an interest with their Legos and building blocks. We need to get them to understand that it’s okay to play with Legos and not necessarily Barbie.”
Woods was one of seven high-profile women technology leaders who spoke Tuesday about the future of STEM education and careers at a Tech Town Hall produced by FedScoop.
Tersa Carlson, vice president of worldwide public sector at Amazon Web Services, agreed. “We see young children already with their devices, they have a mobile device, an iPad, a Kindle, they’re already using these tools. We really now need to enable this and let that love of technology grow in the right way,” Carlson said.
“We’re not starting young enough … to allow our children to understand that these things are related to everything that we do in everyday life,” said Jennifer Nowell, senior director of strategic programs for Symantec’s public sector business. “We do have mathematics, science and core curriculum, but we don’t relate it back to the cool factor of what technology is doing for us today. Even when I think about career day and I raise my hand and say ‘I’d love to come in and talk about cybercrime’ I’m always beat out by the fireman and the police.”
Ellen McCarthy, chief operating officer of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and an outspoken proponent of increasing the number of women in STEM career fields, said the perception that STEM jobs are not cool can be overcome, but it’s up to both parents and educators to create the right role models for young children, particularly girls.
“In the intelligence business in particular, it really doesn’t get much cooler. I know I’m a little biased, but it is amazingly cool,” McCarthy said. “When a baby is saved and you know it was the information you provided that police officer or that federal responder, how much better does that get?”
But that message is not reaching enough kids today, according to McCarthy. “We need to provide better examples. I ban all things Kim Kardashian in my house,” she said. “Kim Kardashian [is a] very successful businesswoman but not the model I want for my daughter. And I’ll tell you it’s a fight every day.”
While it might be a struggle for parents to protect their children from poor role models, the STEM challenge is also a national security issue, according to McCarthy.
“For NGA and the broader intelligence community, it is imperative that we keep in front of this incredible technology revolution that we’re living in right now,” McCarthy said. “This is not something that’s just about getting a good paycheck and being able to live a good life and be like Kim Kardashian. We need to get our young children engaged in studying the sciences and math. It is cool. And also it’s so critically important. If we don’t bring those skills into the public and private sector we will fall behind and we will ultimately lose lives.”
For more on this topic, watch FedScoop’s mini-documentary, Tenacity: Women Redefining Leadership https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzD8H0RniR4&hd=1 Follow @DanielVerton