A call for more math and scienceby Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
When you talk to employers about Minnesota's talent pool, you hear a lot of concern. They say there aren't enough workers with math and science backgrounds to fill many of the state's newly-created knowledge jobs. These careers, in engineering, technology and science, are expected to be an increasingly significant part of the state's economy in the future. The jobs trend troubles employers, who are in turn driving the debate over whether high schools are obsolete.
Eagan, Minn. — Mike Flanagan isn't a teacher. He's a software engineer at Lockheed Martin. But each week, he and his colleague Hamid Safdari spend a half hour mentoring a small group of third graders at Pilot Knob Elementary School in Eagan.
These kids are not necessarily the top math students in their class, but they all say that they like the subject. So Flanagan tries to keep their interest alive by having them do fun math exercises. Today they're filling in numbers on a Sudoku puzzle.
The two Lockheed Martin engineers are among 29 mentors the company sends to Pilot Knob every week. Eighty-nine other employees volunteer in more formal science mentoring programs in other schools. Last year company employees donated 26,000 hours of mentoring time in Minnesota.
HIGH-TECH IS A GROWING JOB MARKET
Richard Udicious, vice president and general manager at Lockheed Martin, says it's time well spent.
"We're doing it because we need to replenish that workforce," he says. "Otherwise, those of us who want to retire won't be looking at a very healthy company to retire from. We won't be leaving it in capable hands. So there's a little bit of selfishness in there -- just being pragmatic."
Nationwide, Lockheed Martin employs about 140,000 people in its aerospace and defense industries. Udicious says a large percentage of those employees are baby boomers who will begin retiring soon.
"We're going to have to hire 90,000 people over that period of time, and over 50,000 of them are going to need technical backgrounds," says Udicious. "The pool of experienced workers has declined 40 percent in the last 10 years, so we're playing catchup."
Lockheed Martin isn't the only company starving for qualified workers with math and science backgrounds. Nationally, more employers than ever are vying for employees with these skills. Competition among high-tech businesses has contributed to the shrinking pool of workers.
The trend is expected to continue. Over the next decade, three out five new jobs created are predicted to be in these disciplines, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.
Some of these new jobs likely will be in the medical device industry.
MINNESOTA EMPLOYERS LOOKING FOR WORKERS
"We are developing the equipment right now so that we can work out all the bugs so that when it goes to manufacturing it will run smoothly and they won't have any problems with it," explains Julie Hart, an engineer at Boston Scientific's research and design facility in Maple Grove.
Hart is testing out a machine that will make one of her company's newest products -- a coated guide wire that can be used to navigate through arteries. Hart's machine is supposed to spray the wire with a substance that makes it slippery.
"It can be frustrating at times when you can't get it to work right. So once you do get it to work right it's pretty exciting," says Hart.
This is just one of many projects Boston Scientific has in development. Recently the company broke ground on a big expansion to its facility. Now all it needs is engineers and scientists to fill it.
"We're in the process of hiring literally hundreds of people to help enable this new technology," says Jeff Mirviss, a marketing executive with the company. "Looking for the right people with the right skill set is critical to our future success."
So far, Mirviss says his company has been able to find enough qualified workers. But it's been a challenge.
Like Lockheed Martin, Boston Scientific employees mentor students, too. The company also offers scholarships to kids pursuing math and science careers. But ultimately, there's only so much that employers can do to reverse workforce trends.
PARENTS NEED TO GET MORE INVOLVED
The challenge facing Minnesota's high-tech businesses will be complicated by projected declines in enrollment.
According to the state, those projections show there will be fewer Caucasian students. These are the kids who typically perform highest on state math and science tests. At the same time, minority and immigrant populations are expected to grow.
"Our problems are coming from the growth in underserved or harder-to-serve students," says Linda Baer, senior vice chancellor for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
Baer says overall, these students have lower graduation rates and lower achievement scores.
"So what we have to do is engage that population, because frankly, they're going to be the growth population for our workforce," she says.
Baer says the state and schools also have to get parents more involved in encouraging math and science. She says parents shouldn't make excuses for poor performance in these areas.
"Sometimes parents' attitudes about, 'Well, that might be hard,' or 'Maybe you won't be good at math,' still prevail to some extent," says Baer. "I think that in other countries you probably don't hear parents saying, 'Well, you won't be good at that.' Rather they would say, 'Work hard at that. You must be good at that.'"
GET THEM INTERESTED WHEN THEY'RE YOUNG
But setting expectations is probably not enough. Math and science have to be fun, too, in order to engage young minds.
"One of the most intense experiences for young people is our cell lab," says Eric Jolly, president of the Science Museum of Minnesota. On this day, some students from Delano are in that lab, experimenting with starches.
Jolly asks one student about her experiment.
"We tested for digestive starch in our saliva and from packaging peanuts," she said, and also explained some of their findings.
"Well, hers was different, because some of her starch was already digested and mine wasn't."
Each year, the Science Museum sees an average of one of every four Minnesota children, either in the museum or through outreach programs in their classrooms. Jolly says these experiences keep kids excited about math and science.
In addition, the Science Museum is one of the largest providers of ongoing teacher training in math and sciences in the state. The training program includes projects that teachers can take back to their schools to get kids engaged.
When it comes to math and science, Jolly says it's also important to make sure that kids develop the capacity to learn harder and harder material.
He says that means schools must make sure their students master basic skills before moving them on to more complicated math and science. If schools don't do this, Jolly says kids will get frustrated and give up on this academic path.
And it doesn't end there. Jolly says schools have to make room for advanced placement courses in their curriculum.
"If they don't have AP calculus in their school, if they don't have someone counseling them to take high-quality math, if they don't have a knowledgeable and caring adult who can help them make the transition to college, if they don't know to take the ACT or the SAT, it doesn't matter how much excitement and capacity they have. We've lost them," says Jolly.
UNACCEPTABLE TO NOT KNOW MATH
Jolly believes the state is making progress, though. He cites the eighth grade algebra requirement, and new initiatives to increase the amount of laboratory-based education in schools as examples.
And Jolly says he is optimistic that Minnesotans are getting the message that math and science are vital parts of a good education. He says many are witnessing it first-hand in the workforce.
"It's no longer acceptable to not know mathematics," says Jolly. "It's no longer tenable to imagine a positive future and good employment possibilities if you are innumerate. That could exist in the past. It doesn't exist now."
The question is whether kids will get that message before it's too late to alter their academic path.
In a recent survey, only about 10 percent of the state's top performing eighth graders said they were interested in science and technology careers. The Minnesota Department of Education says there's a slight increase in interest among high-achieving 10th graders, with about 20 percent saying they're interested in these jobs.
The Education Department and others know they have their work cut out for them. And they know it will be easy to measure their success one day. But for now, they're at the beginning of their task. And they're hopeful by being persistent, their efforts will pay off in time.
- All Things Considered, 04/25/2007, 4:40 p.m.