Connecticut stands at what can best be described as a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) crossroads.  If we are to strengthen and expand our economy, prepare our young people for not only jobs but careers, and reaffirm Connecticut’s legacy as a small but mighty bastion of ingenuity and innovation, we must play the long game, and we must intensify our efforts sooner rather than later.

The road ahead may be steep and obstacle-strewn, but there is a road to navigate it successfully, if we act collectively and take an ecosystem-driven approach.  Recent data underscore what needs to be done, and why.

The challenge is serious. Approximately 5% to 10% of manufacturing workers are now retiring every year, and the state is producing less than one quarter of the qualified replacement workers needed to fill those jobs, the Capitol Region Council of Governments recently pointed out. That’s not nearly enough if we are to retain the manufacturing companies we have, let alone attract additional businesses across the industries or encourage expansion here.

There are laudable and important initiatives underway to promote internships that track into jobs. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor reports the number of active apprenticeships in Connecticut increased from 5,175 in 2014 to 5,528 four years later.  But for those numbers to improve, we’ll need to dramatically increase the proportion of young people interested in exploring these and other STEM careers.

Traditional approaches to workforce readiness start too late in a person’s learning life. Research shows we can double the chances that a young person will consider STEM studies or careers when we open that conversation before age 13.  Trying to convince a young adult or high school student who never had an interest in these kinds of careers, or was discouraged by inaccurate portrayals of these jobs, is measurably harder. The result is a destructive siphoning-off of talent, which is bad for individuals, industry, society and our economy.

As the birthrate declines, and as our backfill population tends to be more diverse and statistically less science-oriented, we cannot afford to let another generation of children grow up without a sense of awareness and excitement. Elementary and middle school children – including girls and minorities – should understand the very real opportunities they can have in STEM, with a wide and accessible range of educational preparation.

This may sound like a distant eventuality in the urgent context of today’s talent crunch. But the turn of a new decade reminds us that a fifth grader today will be a candidate for these jobs before the 2020’s are over. Or they won’t. That matters when aerospace and submarine commitments are measured in decades, not years.

Our strategy must consider the broad span of career-shaping influences.  About half of Connecticut students taking new science assessment tests last year achieved scores indicating that they were learning science at grade level or above. That implies much room for improvement, but it also reflects an important shift in how we teach science in school, which aligns very closely with the approach exemplified by non-school learning venues like science centers.  As Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief performance officer for the State Department of Education, noted, “It is about getting kids to think like scientists and act like one. To ask questions. Inquire about phenomenon they see in the natural world.” To further that objective, we have collaboratively developed extensive training courses for teachers in the new state curriculum, with an increasing emphasis on real world applicability.

The Connecticut Business & Industry Association’s vice president of manufacturing has suggested that manufacturing, for example, should be introduced in high schools, and even middle schools, to generate interest and begin training. And even that may not be soon enough.

Viewing education comprehensively, researcher Robert Falk estimates that 95% of a person’s lifetime learning will actually take place outside school. That’s an imperative behind the Connecticut Science Center’s STEM Career Connections program — showing boys and girls at a young age possibilities that are more attainable and practical than they imagine.

Our programs need to be part of a comprehensive, collective effort to inform, engage, and energize young people and those around them – with an eye on the increasing number of jobs that will require analytic, team-oriented, and problem solving skills across many industries. Connecticut’s future relies on a re-energized culture of enthusiasm for the core strengths that drove our industrial and economic success, and inspires our youth to carry it forward – to their own benefit and ours – for generations to come.

Matt Fleury is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Connecticut Science Center.

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