By: Christine Rambo, CEcD, NLEP and Tim Mcilveene, CenturyLink
Building an educated, highly trained STEM workforce is key to North Louisiana’s economic future. This is true across nearly all industry sectors, both locally and nationally. In our region, advanced manufacturing, health care, agribusiness and IT are all dependent on employees with broad STEM knowledge and know-how. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported STEM jobs were expected to grow 17 percent from 2008 to 2018. However, labor reports also show a crippling shortage of STEM talent — as high as a 1.4 million talent gap for software development jobs projected in 2020. A study by the New American Economy Research Foundation shows the ratio of available STEM jobs versus qualified applicants runs between 45 and 88 STEM openings posted online for every one unemployed, qualified worker. In Louisiana, we have 12.4 job openings for every one unemployed, qualified STEM worker. This STEM talent gap will soon limit our economic growth both locally, regionally, and nationally.
It’s incumbent on private companies to get involved with education — both at the K-12 and the higher education level — to make sure schools are producing graduates who have the correct skill sets to be successful. This symbiotic relationship is win/win/win for all — for the school districts, for industry and most importantly for the students.
CenturyLink is actively working with and encouraging local K-12 school systems throughout North Louisiana to adopt a holistic STEM curriculum. In 2017, Monroe City Schools adopted CenturyLink’s STEM Academy model by implementing the Cyber Innovation Center’s STEM curriculum. The STEM Academies will prepare students for their next steps and will build a talent pipeline not only for CenturyLink but for other employers as well. This curriculum is funded with a grant from the Department of Homeland Security and is considered the national STEM curriculum.
While this curriculum is taught across the country, Monroe City Schools are only the second school district in the State of Louisiana to implement the comprehensive program districtwide. The school system’s three high schools, Carroll, Neville and Wossman, launched STEM Academies last fall. The STEM programs allow students to take cutting-edge classes, setting them on a path for a brighter future. STEM workers command higher wages, earning 29 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
During the first year of the roll-out, approximately 80 students enrolled in Monroe City School’s STEM Academies, thanks in part to the efforts of CenturyLink employees like Ron Lewis, Director of Innovation, Testing and Integration. He and his coworkers have led high school tours at CenturyLink’s corporate headquarters in Monroe and visited local classes to discuss the benefits of a STEM education.
“There is a preconceived notion that STEM workers are nerds with pocket protectors hunched over a computer all day,” laughed Ron, a former law enforcement officer turned cybersecurity engineer. “That’s not the case! People currently working in technology and IT are doing exciting, innovative work that revolutionizes the way we live.”
Ron points to his team at CenturyLink’s Disruptive Innovation department — a mix of IT engineers/inventors and brilliant interns. Every day his team looks for new innovative ways to solve problems and deliver better services to customers through disruptive innovation— essentially a new, more cost effective way of doing things that revolutionizes an industry and eventually disrupts an existing market.
“For example, you can turn a $35 raspberry pi computer, a $15 arduino microcontroller, a sensor and a breadboard into an invention that runs your home for less than the cost of dinner out,” said Ron. “When I talk about the internet of things with students and how the future of technology is limited only by their imaginations, the students’ eyes light up. It’s so rewarding to see that spark of excitement in students, knowing that by encouraging them to pursue a STEM education, they can have satisfying and lucrative careers in technology.”
For this upcoming school year, Monroe’s STEM Academy enrollment has more than doubled to 170 students. School administrators also report the number of elementary and junior high students preparing to participate in the local robotics competition this year have doubled as well. This trend indicates that younger students will be better prepared to begin their STEM studies when they reach high school.
This STEM curriculum offers a flexible model for students to tailor a career tract that works for them. For example, some students who aren’t interested in a college degree can earn industry-based certifications that qualify them for entry level IT jobs. This school year, the Academies will offer training for the CompTia A+ certification, identified by IT professionals across the region as the most useful industry training. Still other students can pursue a 2 year degree from a community college like Louisiana Delta Community College, while others can pursue a four year university degree in Cyber Engineering, Computer Science or Computer Information Systems from schools like Grambling State University, Louisiana Tech University, and University of Louisiana at Monroe.
Essentially, CenturyLink and other local, regional and state partners are building a talent pipeline that reaches from K-12 to higher education and eventually funnels skilled STEM workers to employers. CenturyLink is actively working with Louisiana universities to ensure their computer science and computer information systems curriculums align with the skill sets needed for industry. The universities are eager for feedback from industry leaders, since the input helps them develop high quality graduates and enhances the quality of their programs.
“I encourage other companies to explore partnerships with education,” said Carrick Inabnett, Vice President of Economic Development. “Education leaders are often hungry for insight, and industry has a role to play in creating a pipeline of local talent. Let’s take the opportunity to shape our destiny. Let’s create the future we want for North Louisiana. Let’s change the story of North Louisiana to one of pride, hope and prosperity.”
The collaboration between private sector, K-12 and higher education creates a holistic plan that builds the intellectual capital of our region and our state. The workforce we build today will not only help sustain the success of CenturyLink, IBM and a host of other companies but will lead to high paying in-demand careers for students right here at home.