Do not let it be said that St. Louis is sleeping on the STEM shortage. Listening to Thursday’s session “Preparing the Workforce for Tomorrow’s National Security Challenges,” one could easily come to the conclusion that its professional panelists spend as much time addressing that issue as they do on their own day jobs.
Mentoring and training St. Louis youth for STEM careers is in fact Zekita Armstrong-Asuquo’s day job. The president and CEO of Gateway Global just returned from a visit to Washington, D.C., where she met with policymakers about scaling up the STEM agenda. Now back home, it’s business as usual, executing her company’s “Entry to Executive” program, a USGIF-sponsored high school accreditation program that trains and certifies youth ages 16 to 24 for GEOINT careers. “It offers stackable credentials, which is important because there’s a sense of achievement with young people when they receive credentials they know are recognized by the workforce and colleges,” Armstrong-Asuquo said.
It’s just one of dozens of public-private programs that have sprouted across the region over the past five years, catalyzed by NGA’s 2016 decision to build its western headquarters here. The urgency to fill its 3,000 jobs—in addition to the thousands of offshoot jobs that spring from it—is real. And while the existing GEOINT is scrambling to respond, as of today, the workforce is unprepared for it. “We’ve seen the latest stats and it’s still not great,” said Sue Pollman, NGA program director at its new campus. “It remains an albatross around St. Louis’ neck.”
Partnerships like Entry to Executive, NGA and UMSL’s new geospatial talent pipeline (announced Wednesday at the GEOINT Symposium), and Maryville’s geospatial addition to its Rung for Women program (announced in September), will help fast-track St. Louis youth and underrepresented populations into the first wave of jobs. Beyond that, the effort centers on recruitment and engagement—and a much younger demographic.
“There are two reasons why young people don’t go into the STEM field,” said J. Nikki Markiel, senior GEOINT authority on geomatics and source directorate at NGA. “The first is not knowing what jobs exist. The second is a belief that they’re boring.”
The effort to correct this misunderstanding involves fun STEM-based competitions and events, mentorship programs—one of which was taking place down the street at T-REX at the time of the panel—and a clearer communication of key skill sets to elementary schools. “We have to communicate what it is we need,” said Markiel.
“Our mission is to make it fun,” said Armstrong-Asuquo. In addition to good old-fashioned play, Armstrong-Asuquo also achieves that end by showing kids the wide variety of problems STEM can solve. “Having young people understand what the work looks like.”
There are still miles to travel in this community-wide effort—and not much time to travel them. But this particular community may have the magic mix of qualities required to pull it off.