The race to develop a covid-19 vaccine has been a powerful endorsement for the ongoing importance of scientists and engineers. This global awareness for the importance of science and technology can provide the context and momentum to drive diverse talent toward these vital careers.
Corporations should play a proactive role in ensuring the continued momentum around STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) despite interruptions to education, because it has never been more apparent that STEM saves lives.
Public and private sector investments to diversify talent pipelines for STEM are significant and on-going. Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and other big tech firms pledged $300m each to fund STEM education in primary and secondary schools. The UK National Audit Office estimates that between 2007 and 2017, UK government spending on initiatives designed to enhance STEM skills amounted to around £990m. On March 31, US. president Joe Biden called on Congress to invest a $48bn in American workforce development infrastructure and worker protection. Importantly, this included the creation of career pathway programmes in schools, prioritising increased access to computer science and high-quality career and technical programmes that connect underrepresented students to STEM and in-demand sectors.
These are sizeable and necessary investments, but heading into 2020, research found that children’s interest in STEM was on the decline. If that trend continues, it will result in shortages of the professionals necessary to meet the world’s toughest challenges - the corporate sector has a critical role in ensuring this doesn’t happen.
In addition to programmes that support new talent, corporations need to invest in retention programmes aimed at STEM professionals already in the workforce. These two goals are mutually reinforcing – by showing they value enduring relationships and rewarding long-term employees’ loyalty and commitment, employers become more attractive to younger talent.
Corporations should also expand beyond their traditional recruitment strategies. To diversify incoming talent pools, some corporations in the US have found success by recruiting through partnerships with historically black colleges and universities. This can also be applied to rural and remote regions. The pandemic created a more favourable environment for recruiting talent outside city centres by normalising working from home. Erasing the requirement for proximity has opened new pipelines for aspiring STEM professionals, and corporations with agility and drive can benefit from this influx of talent. I currently sit on the board of directors of PhosAgro, a Russian mining and crop nutrient producer, and the company’s approach involves developing talent from primary school level through to the workplace, supporting STEM education programmes as well as internships and mentoring in the workplace.
Another demographic group that could benefit from this flexibility in approach are women who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM. UNESCO data shows less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women, and only about 30% of female students select STEM-related fields in higher education.
Girls and young women aspiring to STEM careers need role models, so corporations should reboot their efforts to showcase STEM talent in their workforces. During my tenure as director-general of UNESCO, we released a report that underlined the hard barriers that exist to girls’ education, such as the continued division of education along gender lines in many parts of the world and the tired but persistent stereotype that girls simply are not good at maths. In response, UNESCO shared the stories of US astronaut Mae Jemison, Ugandan engineer Godliver Businge and the late Fields Medal-winning Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani. Given the scale of discrimination in these fields, these and other stories are about brilliant individual achievement, irrespective of gender, establish models to help every girl dream big.
Although the pandemic disrupted school and work on a global scale, it also created the context for a new momentum in encouraging STEM careers and supporting existing STEM workers. By taking advantage of new opportunities to grow and diversify their talent pipelines, corporations can ensure that those currently underrepresented in STEM careers have inspiring role models around the world that show them what they can achieve. Our response to the next pandemic could depend on it.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited (EIU) or any other member of The Economist Group. The Economist Group (including the EIU) cannot accept any responsibility or liability for reliance by any person on this article or any of the information, opinions or conclusions set out in the article.