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A Brave New World

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Students at Roots 2 STEM use their imagination and different materials to construct a building.

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The jobs of the future are closer than you think say experts, pointing to significant labour market deficiencies in high-demand jobs related to science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM.

“When we’re thinking about students now, they are being prepared for careers that don’t even exist at this moment,” says Jennifer Adams, Canada research chair, creativity and STEM, and associate professor at the University of Calgary.

Staffing firm Robert Half Technology noted in its recent study titled Job and AI Anxiety that technology recruitment on its own will soar in the first half of 2020, but the number of qualified candidates will fall short of demand.

A separate report by employment-related search engine Indeed, meanwhile, found specialized engineering roles – specifically in tech – are currently among the hardest positions to fill in Western Canada.

And human resources powerhouse Ranstad recently stated the demand for skilled workers in STEM fields has exceeded supply in Canada, especially in technology – and it’s only increasing.

Local labour market professionals are already seeing this transitional demand for STEM jobs on the front lines. Catherine Brownlee, president and CEO of Calgary-based recruitment firm Catherine Brownlee Inc. (CBI), notes there is aggressive interest in hiring for tech-based careers such as artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain and cryptocurrency.

“It’s exponentially changing for all of us,” she says. “The discussions have changed from ‘I can’t wait for everything to come back’ to ‘it’s never coming back.’ People are getting retrained and pivoting into other opportunities.”

Other areas in high demand for high-tech skills include everything from logistics to health care – even entertainment through virtual and augmented reality.

Even the way Brownlee hunts for talent has changed.

“When we’re looking for people, for years and years we’d look for specific criteria, particularly around previous experience so they could do the same thing again,” she says. “Now, employers are asking me for someone who is willing to learn because this has never been done before.”

Yet many experts still point to barriers that are discouraging many young adults from pursuing careers in STEM, beginning with how it’s taught. Adams says the traditional siloed approach of teaching subjects such as math and science in grade schools is out of date.

“If you’re thinking about STEM in the interdisciplinary sense, it’s not taught as widely as it should be,” she says. “In the siloed sense, it’s still taught as one of those gatekeeping courses where most students are required to take some equivalent of biology, earth and environmental sciences and maybe chemistry.

“But if you think about any of the STEM or science-related issues (outside of the classroom), they don’t exist in those disciplinary silos. I believe all students need some type of STEM, but it would be more salient if it were taught in an interdisciplinary sense.”

The challenge? Money and perception.

“It’s going to take resources,” says Adams. “The human resources are there, but there needs to be an investment in both capital and material resources.

“There also needs to be a change in attitude of what science disciplines are. Even people who are practicing science in the lab, they might say they’re a chemist. Yet if you look at their research, you realize it takes other disciplinary knowledge in order to adequately do that research.”

Camilla Sutton, president and CEO of Women in Capital Markets (WCM), says another roadblock, particularly for women, is they don’t understand what a career in STEM looks like.

Last fall, WCM hosted its SheBiz conference in Calgary where more than 100 female local high school students had the unique opportunity to hear from business and STEM leaders, while being exposed to career opportunities available in these fields.

“What we hear a lot from girls is that only geeky boys are taking computer science – not recognizing that computer science is fascinating,” says Sutton, noting that, now entering its ninth year, SheBiz has already come to Calgary three times as demand grows with each conference.

“Or recognizing that if you want to go work at places like Google, you really need some of that background. I think there’s a stereotype there that the girls see who is interested in these early years of school and self-select out.”

Sutton says, currently, only 26 and 30 and per cent of math and engineering grads, respectively, in Canada are women.

“We are still just not attracting enough women into the higher education levels in STEM, which is critically important when closing things like the gender pay gap,” she says. “We haven’t been doing our girls any favours in terms of making sure they are considering going into STEM fields.

“This is not an area that Canada can risk falling behind in.”

Roots 2 STEM CEO and founder Dean White has seen first-hand how much both genders benefit from introducing STEM at a young age. The electrical engineer opened the Calgary-based learning academy in 2014, and has seen interest skyrocket among grade school students, both girls and boys. In 2019, he estimates more than 1,600 students passed through the not-for-profit educational organization’s doors through after-school classes, special events and camps.

“The girls who I’ve seen here have accelerated. I think we need to nurture that – to get more women into science and engineering careers,” says White.

At Roots 2 STEM, all students are encouraged to be curious and ask questions. White says he takes a hands-on approach to teaching within what he calls a “lab of discovery.” He singles out one student in his early teens who has spent the better part of a year building a remote-operated tank on his own, and it runs “like a Swiss watch.” Before that, the student built a rocket.

“We want to give them more hands-on projects they can learn from. Do problem solving and critical thinking – really outside-of-the-box stuff,” he says. “STEM is all about getting them to think about something. The way we teach it is to get them asking lots of questions and get them thinking of solutions and providing opportunities for them to learn.

“Our economy is changing. Technology is changing. We have to be prepared to work with STEM jobs, yet we don’t have enough students to fill those jobs. This is not about careers of tomorrow. This is about careers of today.”

White adds the arts, or STEM + A, is also making its way into programming at Roots 2 STEM.

“Engineering has a lot of art in it, especially when you’re doing a lot of computer-generated imagery and 3D design,” he says. “It is all about giving students different perspectives on how to deal with different situations.”

Adams agrees, noting the two work hand in hand. She says it, again, emphasizes why a holistic approach to teaching makes sense.

“Scientists and artists work in very similar ways,” she says. “They’re both asking questions about the world and coming up with some type of protocol or procedure to document and demonstrate what they learn and how to integrate what they’ve learned about the world. I think it’s really important to look at some of those things in parallel.”

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