Stemming the Tide

Convincing more students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is paramount to cultivating an innovative, dynamic marketplace.

As a growing, Michigan-based independent electric transmission utility, ITC Holdings Corp. in Novi is a primary “customer” of the talent pipeline. We have an ongoing demand for engineering talent, and have experienced an increasing demand for field technicians as the current workforce ages and large groups of workers head into retirement. What we see today is that too few students are graduating with the basic skills necessary to enter the next step of education or gain acceptance into training programs for 21st century jobs.

There continues to be a gap between the needs of businesses and the skills of graduating students because of the increasing demands being placed on us by the global economy. The business community has a responsibility to communicate their current requirements to the nation’s educational institutions.

Consider the requirements of a company like ITC. Engineers comprise a significant segment of our workforce, and the skills required of them are continually advancing. I have seen this in my own career as an engineer. Just 20 years ago, those who wanted to be a line worker in the energy industry required only a high school diploma. Today, the advanced technology in the transmission grid requires people with a skill set in math and problem-solving that is above what is available in most high schools.

Our education system has failed to keep pace with the needs of the current economy, particularly in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — the STEM subjects. Excellence in STEM subjects is the hallmark of an innovative and dynamic economy.

In recent international tests of 15-year-old students, the U.S. ranked 17th in science performance and 25th in mathematics among 34 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. ACT test results in the U.S. from 2012 show that more than half of our high school graduates are not prepared for college-level math, and nearly 70 percent are not prepared for college-level science.

The modernization of our education system is vital to both our state’s and our nation’s future if we intend to continue to be an economic leader in the world. Quite frankly, we are slipping in our ability to prepare our children to be able to compete in math and the sciences. As a state and as a nation, we cannot allow this to happen. If Michigan expects to compete in the modern global economy, our education and workforce training systems must prepare more students for STEM and STEM-related careers.

The road before us will be difficult. Research by the Business-Higher Education Forum shows that more than 80 percent of U.S. high school students are either uninterested or nonproficient in STEM subjects. This suggests that millions of U.S. students are failing to see the relevance and opportunity a STEM education can bring to their lives and the nation’s future.

A recent report from the Business Roundtable showed that although 44 percent of high school seniors are proficient in STEM subjects, most of them (27 percent) are not interested in pursuing STEM careers. We need to show students that STEM careers are exciting, interesting, challenging, and rewarding. By way of example, STEM fields tend to have higher job growth rates, lower unemployment rates, and higher starting salaries than non-STEM fields.

Let’s support more science and math competitions that make success in feats of engineering as celebrated as success in sports. Programs such as FIRST Robotics prove that students can be enthusiastic about science when it’s packaged in a compelling manner that is relevant to their digital-age interests.

That said, there are some encouraging, noteworthy developments in education. Michigan is attempting to inject support into its lowest-performing schools. Consistent academic standards are being rolled out across the country, which gives us an agreed-upon measuring stick to track how we are doing. But much remains to be done. We must bring more technology into classrooms, re-energize the skilled trades, and drive continuous improvement in our schools.

Like many companies, ITC is focusing support on several areas of education. We have invested in elementary education programs to help develop new and improved ways of educating our elementary school children. We have collaborated with major universities such as Lawrence Technological University in Southfield and Michigan Technological University in Houghton to help them improve their power engineering programs.

Finally, we have worked with community colleges and our skilled trade partners to develop and train skilled trade employees, including creating remedial training programs to fill in the gaps.

It is critical for all of us in the business community to continue to advocate at the federal, state, and local levels for academic standards that will bolster the emphasis on STEM subjects. We must work together to revitalize our education system, ensuring that Michigan and the nation remain competitive in the constantly evolving global economy. db