By Michelle Blaise
Senior Vice President, Technical Services
ComEd, an Exelon Company
If we are going to meet our future workforce needs and live up to our values of equal opportunity for all, we simply must do better–and that starts early.
“I am good at fixing things,” wrote Elijah, a Chicago-area 5th grader who sent his “resumé” to ComEd after participating in one of ASME’s DropMEin! science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education experiences. “I fixed my sink by taking out the problem with a long stick…I know that wires + movement = electricity… and I want to join ComEd.” Elijah included a hand-drawn diagram of an electrical current to illustrate his new understanding of power generation.
Chances are ComEd, the company I’m proud to work for and who provided the engineer that visited his classroom, will need Elijah—and plenty more like him—when he is ready to join the technical workforce in a dozen years or so.
If Elijah and his classmates decide to pursue STEM-related careers and join the nearly one-quarter of U.S. workers engaged in similar roles, it will be because of the early exposure to science, technology, engineering, and math they received in elementary school. And it would be a good choice, because, on average, STEM workers achieve dramatically higher median earnings than non-STEM workers ($64,000 vs. $40,000 based on 2020 data from the National Science Foundation).
It is important to cultivate STEM interest at an early age, because there are currently more than three million unfilled technical jobs in the United States, and that gap is anticipated to grow in the decades ahead. In fact, a ComEd-commissioned study found that the transition to clean energy could create a net increase of more than 150,000 jobs in Illinois by 2050, including technical jobs.
To ensure those jobs are filled with skilled, diverse, local talent, we’ll need to leverage our current STEM workforce to influence the next generation and provide the necessary encouragement and resources for them to succeed. Today, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), American 15-year-olds rank just 38th in math and 24th in science out of 71 countries where students were tested for scholastic performance.
The gap for girls is even more glaring. A 2020 study by the National Science Foundation found that “only 18 percent of girls learned STEM concepts between ages 5 and 12, while 23 percent of boys learned STEM concepts at the same age.” Both numbers are unacceptably low, but the disparity between them is equally concerning.
In the United States, women make up nearly half the total workforce, yet comprise just one-third of STEM workers. People of color are similarly underrepresented: although Blacks, Latinos and American Indians or Alaska Natives together represent approximately 35 percent of the employed U.S. population, they only make up 23 percent of the STEM workforce.
If we are going to meet our future workforce needs and live up to our values of equal opportunity for all, we simply must do better—and that starts early.
From an employer’s standpoint, the challenges of education and employment equity, and development of the future workforce, are closely related. By opening the door to STEM careers for more girls and students of color, we will grow the technical workforce.
That’s why companies like ComEd prioritize education and workforce development in our community outreach programs. It’s also why we choose to invest in programs like ASME’s Engineering Dreams and DropMEIn! that reach directly into K-12 classrooms with curriculum and activities that demonstrate the wonders of engineering and the possibilities of a STEM career.
Both worthwhile initiatives enable working engineers to visit K-12 classrooms, whether in person or virtually, to provide actual examples of what technical professionals do. So far this year, 18 of my ComEd colleagues have visited more than 30 classrooms in the greater Chicago area, opening a window into the profession and encouraging kids at a young age to “think like an engineer” and become “problem solvers for good.”
We know that students who are introduced to STEM concepts early and often stand a much better chance of pursuing higher education and rewarding technical careers. While this won’t be all the support they will need to reach their STEM career goals, it is a crucial first step to launch them on their way.
Michelle Blaise is senior vice president, Technical Services, for ComEd, an Exelon Company, and a member of the leadership group for the ASME Foundation’s Campaign for Next Generation Engineers. For more information about ASME’s K-12 STEM readiness programs, visit asmefoundation.org