Virginia Tech, Qualcomm Join Forces to Create Future STEM Workers

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Posted By Donna Fuscaldo on October 3, 2016 at 9:28 am
Virginia Tech, Qualcomm Join Forces to Create Future STEM Workers

STEM is the future of the global economy, yet many high schools and colleges in the U.S. aren’t churning out enough science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates to meet the demand. In response, companies are stepping in, partnering with colleges and boot camps to ensure future graduates will have the necessary skills to succeed in the technology-driven workforce. The latest partnership for future STEM workers: Virginia Tech and semiconductor maker Qualcomm.

The two teamed up to create the Thinkabit Lab at Virginia Tech’s Northern Virginia Center in Falls Church. Starting this fall, the lab, based off of Qualcomm’s World of Work and STEM coursework, offers teachers and students a learning environment that is part lab, makerspace and classroom. The lab, which is open to students from 4th grade through adults, including graduate students, aims to spark an interest in STEM and develop the future Washington, D.C.-area tech workforce.

The idea is to arm the future generation of workers with foundational engineering and microelectronics to get entry level positions. D.C. is home to lots of lawyers and aspiring politicians, but it isn’t yet a hotbed of technology workers like Silicon Valley.

“This is one of the best examples of corporate citizenship and corporate responsibility” says Jim Egenrieder, faculty research Associate and director of Virginia Tech Thinkabit Labs. “At most companies, HR and recruiting officers spend a lot of time developing and protecting their employee talent. Now we are also seeing smart companies making real investments – not just money but also thought leadership in promoting STEM education programs to develop future technical employees.”

Thinkabit Lab aims to spark interest for STEM workers

At the Thinkabit Lab, students from all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds get an immersive experience with technology by combining programming and creative mechanics, crafts and team interactions. The classes are taught by scientists, engineers and career coaches who instruct students to create, code and present robotic creations.

“Qualcomm is a high tech company filled with an incredible number of technology experts, who, along with Qualcomm corporate leadership, are seeking to reach out to the greater community and increase participation in STEM,” adds Bevlee Watford, professor, Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. “We believe that the Virginia Tech partnership, with its strong emphasis on engineering and teacher training, will serve as a model for other companies and educational institutions. Not only are we providing hands-on experiences for our youth, but also motivating and inspiring the educators about how they can pass this knowledge onto even greater numbers of students.”

Companies and schools partnering at increasing rate

The move on the part of Virginia Tech and Qualcomm comes at a time when corporations are wrestling with a dearth of skilled workers, particularly STEM workers, prompting them to come up with unique ways to train talent. Next fall software giant Oracle will open the first charter high school on its sprawling campus in Redwood, Shores, Calif. Called Design Tech High or d.tech, the free charter school will focus on STEM disciplines and will incorporate technology, design-thinking and problem-solving skills to give students an edge in the technology-driven economy. Currently the school is being housed inside a trade school in the Bay Area, but once the facilities are complete, it will be the first public high in the United States located within a company. Some of the technology workshops offered at the school will be taught by Oracle workers.

Zip Code Wilmington is another example. The coding school teaches Java, a coding language that isn’t taught by many boot camps, but one that is used by most of  the Fortune 1000 companies. The school, which has the backing of JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Capital One among others, prepares students for a job in the software development field, with some graduates moving directly into full-time jobs and/or paid 26 week apprenticeships at local corporations.

The model for developing STEM workers is unique in that corporations pay for apprentices on a contract-to-hire basis and pay placement fees for those it hires directly. “There’s a growing recognition that the education model based on the idea that everybody should get a BA as a ticket to enter the labor market doesn’t really make sense the way it once did,” says Chauncy Lennon, head of workforce initiatives at JPMorgan Chase. “That’s paired with a sense that many businesses have a real need for workers who are trained in a set of technical skills.”

As a result, Lennon says the recent partnerships between schools and companies is just the beginning of a trend that will likely explode as the talent wars continue for STEM workers. Lennon points to a partnership between financial services firms and Baruch College, which he said are creating programs focused on cyber security, a huge issue for banking and trading firms. “Whether the technical training comes from a certificate they get in high school or post-secondary associated degree or bachelor’s degree doesn’t matter,” says Lennon. “What matters more is investing in a pipeline of people with technical skills. That’s why these partnerships are happening at all levels.”

Skill gap more about demand than supply

For some, time now, companies have been bemoaning the lack of technical skills this crop of graduates possess. Sure, schools such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University are still delivering the next technology leaders, but beyond that, the country is facing a dearth of technical skilled workers.

According to Careerbuilder.com and EMSI, the gap between job posting and hires in the computer and information sciences field stood at close to half a million or 480,650 jobs. That comes at a time when the job growth in those fields is expected to grow 8.6 percent by 2020. Delve deeper into sub sectors of technology and it gets worse.

As the number of Internet connected things explode the incidents of hacks and data breaches will only get worse yet the country lacks enough cybersecurity experts to fight back. “We often think about the skills gap as supply side but the skills gap is really around the demand side and around the employer,” says Lennon. “Employers are doing a better job of understanding if they don’t invest in training they are not going to capture the opportunities to be more productive, be more competitive.”

Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo is a freelance journalist hailing out of Long Island, New York. She has also written for Bankrate.com, Glassdoor.com, SigFig.com, FoxBusiness.com, Business Insider, Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal.

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