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How STEM Programs Solve the Skills Gap Crisis in the Workforce


The skills gap in the workforce is no joke. It’s a serious issue. Even just a cursory search for the topic online yields a long list of urgently worded headlines about the subject–all published in recent weeks.

For example:

  • “Technology and the Talent Shortage” (9/17/19, Workforce)
  • “Workforce summit seeks answers to skills gap” (9/18/19, Hannibal)
  • “Engineering a Workforce” (10/3/19, Quality Digest)
  • “With baby boomers retiring, who will fill your workforce gap?” (9/8/19, Monster)
  • “Can STEM Qualifications Hold The Key To The Future Of Cybersecurity?” (9/11/19, Forbes)

You’ll also find articles about how to conduct skills gap analysis and plenty of pieces about big companies (like Microsoft’s efforts and the efforts of many others) working overtime to prepare the workforce for the massive digital economy that only continues to grow in scope and complexity.

The skills gap is a big deal, in other words, and it’s the topic around many water coolers these days.

That means that FIRST in Texas is at the epicenter of what many experts (including the writers above) see as the best solution: a blended package of STEM advocacy, STEM education, and STEM training programs at every level of society, including young students.

A Look at the Skills Gap in Detail (And How Companies Are Trying to Adapt)

Sarah Fister Gale of Workforce starts her piece with a sobering observation: “There is still more demand for talent than there is supply, the gap continues to widen, and there is no end to both complex issues in sight.” Her quote from Barry Asin (the president of Staffing Industry Analysts headquartered in Mountain View, California) describes the sense of panic for many companies: “If anything, the skills shortage is having a dampening effect on the industry, because it’s even more extreme.”

Demand is high, Gale notes, but companies like Staffing Industry Analysts and many others across the country are failing to meet the demand because they don’t have enough skilled employees.

It’s not that companies aren’t trying to adapt to what is described as a “new normal” of workforce shortages. Companies and job training agencies often hold reskilling programs. As noted by Gale, big agencies such as Adecco are holding “coding bootcamps” to equip participants for the STEM roles that companies can’t fill easily. (In 2018, Adecco acquired the digital retraining company General Assembly for $412 million for this very purpose).

Other organizations are using technology such as virtual reality training programs to help solve the skills gap problem. In these scenarios, agencies or companies bring employees into virtual reality sessions to learn how to (for example) operate a forklift or a special vehicle or robotic device.

Of course, many companies believe the big trends of AI and machine learning will solve the skills gap staffing problem. However, it’s not so simple. Vinda Souza, the vice president of global communications for Bullhorn in Boston, expressed skepticism that companies are equipped to deploy those high-tech solutions. “Only 5 out of 10 staffing processionals understand what artificial intelligence and machine learning are,” Souza pointed out to Gale in a reference to Bullhorn’s survey of companies about that topic.

The bottom-line: companies are desperate for a better educated workforce. To make that happen across the board, the learning must begin with students, and that’s where FIRST in Texas (and your partnership with FIRST in Texas) comes into play in a big way.


How STEM Programs (Like FIRST in Texas) Fill the Skills Gap (And Change Lives!)

Programs such as FIRST in Texas really are unique in the way they solve this problem. They not only bring STEM to kids and put them on a path to fill the skills gap in tomorrow’s workforce, they get students excited and passionate about STEM. This makes it much more likely that the student will stick with it in the long run and choose a STEM-related career as an adult.

If you want to make a lifelong impression on a child–something that will propel them into the STEM world of employment–you need to deliver something compelling (especially in today’s media-saturated, over-stimulating digital world).

In an article interview from EdSurge, FIRST president Don Bossi described it perfectly:

We are very much about putting inspiration in front of education. Robotics competitions have the same thrills and excitement every other sport has. We give kids a challenging problem they want to accomplish, and along the way they realize, ‘gee, I actually have to use the math and science I’ve been learning to figure this out.’ Once the spark is lit, they start to take harder classes, and they are more interested in STEM as a career. The chances a high school athlete is going to become a pro athlete are one in a million. But we can say there are jobs out there for every kid who is developing skill sets from our programs.

Bossi gave the example of Yohance Salimy, a teenager who was homeless in South Central Los Angeles. This teen was encouraged to join a robotics team at Crenshaw High School. In the beginning, Yohance was just hoping for a safe place to hang out after school where he might get some food too. After he joined the team, he came under the wings of a mentor from Aerospace Corporation. It eventually led to an internship with the company, and Yohance used the funds from the internship to get his family off the streets and into an apartment.

It gets even better: Yohance eventually became a cadet at the US Air Force Academy and then a pilot and second lieutenant.

Bossi makes a final point: it’s all about opening the eyes of kids to see skills and talents (and potential) in themselves that they never knew or imagined they could have.

What Partners and Sponsors Can Do

If you’re not partnering with us already, maybe your company will be the next sponsor to change a kid’s life. Maybe someday you’ll be able to walk away from a robotics competition knowing you’ve just altered the course of dozens of students’ lives and (at the same time) invested in your future workforce.

Sure, it’s a long-term solution, like planting seeds and investing in a farm that slowly grows, but the benefits are rich. The work and patience is worth it.

For example, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas (TMMTX) sponsors robotics teams, provides internships, and has a two-year Advanced Manufacturing Technology (AMT) program. The AMT program provides skills training and hands-on learning opportunities which prepares young graduates for gainful employment upon completion of the program. Currently there are former FIRST in Texas alumni students who were on TMMTX sponsored teams, went through the AMT program, and who are now working for Toyota.

Not to be outdone, one of our  statewide partners, BAE Systems, Inc., which has been a supporter of FIRST for over 25 years says that a whopping 30 percent of their new engineer hires at locations all across the country (including Texas) are FIRST alumni. But don’t just take our word for it. Here’s a video by BAE Systems, Inc. (which includes FIRST Founder, Dean Kamen) that summarizes the mutually beneficial longterm value of the relationship between BAE and FIRST®.

With these two examples it’s easy to see that investing in STEM education programs like FIRST in Texas is a winning proposition. So, if you haven’t partnered with FIRST in Texas yet, you’re missing out on a wonderful workforce pathway that brings STEM-focused students right to your doorstep.

Find out more at our Partnership page.

What Parents Can Do

Parents, when they support FIRST in Texas by getting their kids involved, attending events, and volunteering in some way (see the volunteers section below), they get to see firsthand how these robotics teams equip their child with valuable job skills. Besides teaching their child about STEM, FIRST in Texas robotics teams and competitions give students better social and teamwork-oriented skills, and they teach them how to be leaders and innovative thinkers.

At the same time, it educates parents to know what employers want to see in their future STEM-minded employees.

What Educators Can Do

FIRST robotics programs also teach students both hard and soft skills that feed into the rest of their academics. When schools partner with FIRST in Texas, they’re investing in the long-term quality of their student population.

For example, in the Brandeis University Longitudinal 60 month Study, they came to a clear conclusion: “FIRST participants continue to show significantly greater average gains on STEM-related attitudes and interests than comparison students and are statistically significantly more likely to show gains in STEM-related outcomes than students in the comparison group.”

What Volunteers Can Do

If you’re a volunteer (or you’re interested in becoming a volunteer), you will experience the thrill of the future workforce being molded right before your eyes. You’ll have a direct role in shaping, strengthening, and enlarging the badly needed STEM-skilled workforce. You’ll also have a total blast networking with other volunteers and seeing smiles light up kids’ faces as they participate in the many exciting FIRST robotics programs.

Looking at the Skills Gap Crisis With Optimism

When you realized that programs like FIRST in Texas exist–and when you see how hard partners, companies, schools, parents, and volunteers are working on these programs–you walk away from the skills gap question with renewed optimism. There is a bright future for the STEM-focused workforce.

Another bright spot to notice in this whole topic: the skills gap shortage has had a positive effect on wages for many of these STEM positions. As a result, student alumni from FIRST in Texas who go on to STEM careers will likely be getting even higher salaries than in previous decades. The Bullhorn survey mentioned above made this observation: “…78 percent of staffing professionals believe employers must increase pay if they want to compete for qualified candidates.” Companies are seeing the need to raise salaries to attract more candidates.

In other words, even though the skills gap issue has caused many sleepless nights for companies, the STEM workforce has a bright future thanks to STEM advocates across Texas. When you invest in and partner with FIRST in Texas, you’re providing some of the light for that bright future in our state.