Growing Interest in STEM: Does the burden fall on the PR community?

Cori Kendrick

In a recent report by US News and World Reports studies showed that that despite initiatives to improve and incentivize the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), our nation is still struggling to produce enough professionals to fill current and future STEM jobs.

According to the report, STEM employment has risen more than 30 percent, from 12.8 million jobs in 2000 to 16.8 million jobs in 2013, however, high schooler’s interest in pursuing a STEM career has failed to keep pace.

The STEM index is comprised of eight component indices and 93 sub-indices, in order to illustrate a holistic view of aptitude and interest in STEM. The “high school interest” index is broken down by gender and ethnicity, revealing a split, with consistent interest from Asian-Americans and Caucasian males versus waning interest from African Americans, Hispanics and females.

But according to a study from Pew Research, these numbers misrepresent the American workforce, where the Hispanic population has grown six-fold since 1970 and by 2060 and is expected to comprise 31 percent of the total population. These numbers indicate how important it is that the Hispanic population is a target demographic for STEM’s education efforts. High growth segments, like multicultural groups, can have different cultural norms and expectations which may require a different outreach strategy.

I’d argue that there’s a possibility that surveying students while they’re still in high school is too soon to derive an accurate prediction of their post-education intentions. I also wonder whether this index is fully representative of the path students follow after college?

Had someone asked me in high school, or even as I was graduating from college if I would have a career path that involved the enterprise technology industry, I likely would have laughed at the thought of it. Many of my peers who graduated with liberal arts degrees have pursued careers in technology and have gone back to school to supplement their education with STEM-related coursework. While technology PR is by no means a STEM career, I believe that industry demand will have an impact on the post-graduate career and education choices that the next-generation workforce selects.

Unfortunately until now, there has been little evidence that government efforts, like President Obama’s 2009 Educate to Innovate Campaign have made an impact on interest levels. It’s important that STEM advocates determine why high schoolers haven’t expressed more interest.

Perhaps the initiative needs to be better targeted and localized in order to have the impact necessary. It’s worth asking if this burden falls on us as technology PR professionals to craft the narrative that speaks directly to our nation’s students and the industry need for STEM-educated professionals. I’d also argue that STEM-oriented media needs to be more accessible and appealing to youth.

Those of us who work in the technology PR industry, are privileged to have a front row seat to the impact that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers have on our daily lives. After all, it is our job to develop a narrative around how these innovations are affecting our day-to-day lives as well as our country’s economy. In Boston, we’re even a bit spoiled because the tech boom surrounds us, not only in the themes of networking events, but the budding Innovation District, higher-education and start up scene. Boston PR agencies are representative of this shift as the market becomes increasingly known as a smaller version of Silicon Valley. I’ll be interested to see if regional high growth tech markets are able to impact the education system, in the same manner that they have the PR industry.

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