How Out-of-School Enrichment Can Close The STEM Talent Gap

I founded Aspera with the vision of revolutionizing the way companies move data. Now, twelve years later, Aspera is part of IBM and is a leader finding new ways to move high volumes of data at maximum speeds. That may not sound like the most glamourous of work, but it is actually quite exhilarating. I work with engineers who are routinely tackling problems that require curiosity, critical thinking and resilience.

Applying these skills is a part of what makes STEM careers so exciting, but that’s also what makes it challenging for me to find the best and brightest talent for my company. Great candidates exist – I know they do – but it’s not always easy to find them prepared with the core skills they will need to succeed. We’ve discovered that not every applicant can look at a large system and analyze it down to its smallest parts the way we need them to. Others struggle to maintain accurate records in a field where tracking results and experiments are the very foundation of our work.

Put simply: We need more candidates with stronger life skills that are honed through hands-on STEM experience. Those people don’t just spring into existence. They are grown through programs and experiences and mentors that expose them to STEM in practical and engaging ways very early on and, often, outside of school.

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Learning at a young age gives you an opportunity to experiment, to fail, and to take lessons from those failures – which are common, because STEM is hard. Young people need to find the part of STEM education that makes that difficulty worthwhile; inspiration that ignites a lifelong passion.

We’ve all had teachers and classes that inspire us to greatness, but often the spark of interest is nurtured and developed outside of the classroom. Watching a basketball sail through the hoop can pique curiosity about physics. Laying on the grass during a meteor shower can raise questions about astronomy. A broken radio has the potential to inspire inquisitiveness about electronic engineering. Latching onto those interests and ensuring they are built upon is key to success. I found my own STEM inspiration and the opportunities that came with it in my grade school 4-H program; some of my peers found the same growth and development in their Boy and Girl Scouts Troops.

Though it is best known for its focus on agriculture and animal husbandry, 4-H has been a strong advocate for STEM education for decades. I spent hours in 4-H designing and constructing clothes. My mom and I used a database to track my progress at every step. I also had the chance to develop strong technical communications skills, which gave me the ability to convey complex engineering concepts – an asset I still find useful today.

In addition to providing outside the classroom experiences in crucial STEM fields, the most important skill youth leadership organizations like 4-H provide is confidence. When I have to explain how Aspera works to a large group of potential investors, it might seem daunting to outsiders, but I know I can do it because of the countless times in my youth I addressed audiences large and small as part of my 4-H experience. When faced with putting together my own company, it was also those experiences I had growing up that gave me the ability to balance all of the necessary skills with the courage and comfort level to undertake a massive independent project.

STEM-focused programs like 4-H aren’t just incubators for the kinds of people who are bringing our future to life. They are equalizers, bringing the chance for success to everyone with the aptitude and desire. Some of the brightest minds often lack exposure to new concepts, access to the right resources and the experience overcoming real world challenges that they need to be able to build on their failures, rather than collapse under them.

Whether it’s seeking out mentors within the local science community to nurture your interests, or bringing together fellow youths to learn coding outside of the classroom, there are so many opportunities to complement classroom learning and achieve greater success.

My start in 4-H is part of the reason I lead a business at the forefront of its industry, and it’s why I continue to support programs that prepare the next generation of America’s business leaders to be bold, confident, and ready to tackle the challenges ahead. I look forward to the day when I can open my door at Aspera and see thousands of qualified applicants leaping for the chance to put their hard-earned STEM skills to work.




Michelle Munson is the Co-founder, President, and CEO of Aspera.

The GradsofLifeVoice Forbes team provides thought leadership, research and expert commentary on innovative talent pipelines and related issues such as the skills gap, income inequality, workforce diversity, and the business case for employment pathways. We seek to change employers’ perceptions of young adults with atypical resumes from social liabilities to economic assets. This post was originally featured here.


Innovation, Skills Gap, Technology,
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