The news is filled with stories about the shortage of trained workers and the trouble companies are having filling positions. This is especially true in the technology and engineering fields, where unemployment has remained lower and in many disciplines barely exists at all. It makes it challenging to find and retain people especially in the so called STEM industries. There is ongoing discussion about how to fix the problem.
One place I think we can find some inspiration is in the world of sports. Professional leagues like the NFL or MLB have a steady pipeline of candidates to choose from. All business models are complex and involve a variety of factors that contribute to success and the sports world is no different. I do however think there are three things that we might consider emulating or adapting to our purposes.
1. Promote career potential. Everyone sees the career potential as an athlete. We all know the earning potential because contracts and salaries are reported openly. We know the positions that exist, both on and off the field, since the games are broadcast and covered by numerous media and many of us are fans. This all combines to ensure that youngsters (and the young at heart!) everywhere dream of playing first base, sinking a basket or scoring a goal, and making a living doing it, no matter how unlikely that prospect is.
Now obviously STEM industries and their companies don’t have the same exposure and popularity that professional sports enjoy but that just means we should be working even harder to promote ourselves and the satisfying, rewarding careers we offer. Most people are realistic enough to recognize that a multimillion dollar sports career is not in the cards for them but when it comes time to choose a major in college or just think about the career path they will follow, what do they know about us? Do they know the types of positions available, the kind of work STEM industries and companies do? Do they know the earning potential? Are they aware of the projections for which jobs will be most in demand in the future? We need to do a better job of educating everyone about the great careers waiting for them!
2. Work with the schools and education system. If you want to be a baseball player, you know you have to learn to hit and catch. If you want to be a basketball player, learn to shoot and dribble; a hockey star, start by learning to skate. Again, it’s obvious when you see people doing these jobs what skills you need to learn. Does everyone understand the connection between algebra, calculus and chemistry, and achievement and success in our “stadiums?” Do they know what the equivalent of catching and throwing is in our ballpark, that is, our companies? Youth and school sports are organized to train children in the fundamentals and give them a chance to excel beyond the basics. We need to ensure that the same is happening in STEM education and training.
Professional sports would not rely on the system in place now if it wasn’t consistently delivering the kind of candidates it needed. We shouldn’t either. Again, I’m not saying the answers are easy or there is a magic bullet but let’s make sure that it isn’t because we haven’t been clear about the requirements. Let’s make sure that it isn’t silence, lack of effort or cooperation and partnership on the part of the business community that contributes to the lack of qualified workers entering the pipeline. This could be as formal as working with academic and government leaders to formulate policy and curricula or as simple as participating in a career day or mentoring at a local school. We can all contribute in some way.
3. Provide training. Most team sports have “farm teams;” minor leagues where promising players work to improve in the hopes of being good enough to reach the majors. Regardless of the training provided by youth sports and school teams, even at the college level, professional sports teams know they need to provide their own training. They invest time and money in order to keep their pipeline filled. Their training model is necessarily very different than anything that would work in business – farm teams are not going to work! It’s their commitment to training that we should consider emulating. They just do it, even though it doesn’t always work out.
They also retrain and repurpose people. Pitchers go from starters to closers and back again. If the team needs a first baseman or someone to hit as the DH, they move people around and retrain. Football teams recruit track stars and train them to be wide receivers. College QBs become tight ends. It happens all the time. Teams know that if someone is a good athlete, or a fast runner, they can train them to play football or teach them the nuances of a particular position. It’s the basic skill set and work ethic that is the foundation they look for and on which they can build. We need to do the same. Is an aptitude for programming the same as being a fast runner? Can you train someone who has proven abilities in one discipline to be a wide receiver in another? They do it, shouldn’t we consider it too?
I’ll close by acknowledging again that the lack of qualified STEM workers is a complex problem that will require efforts on a number of fronts. My suggestions here are just a small attempt at thinking about the problem in a different way and taking inspiration for solutions from a potentially unlikely, but highly successful source. I’d love to hear your ideas or thoughts on the matter!
President and CEO
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