Alcoa CEO: The Key To STEM is Partnerships

July 29, 2013

The U.S. relies heavily upon technology and innovation for its economic strength, yet it is consistently being reported that American students lag behind their international peers when it comes to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The business community realizes the vital role STEM education plays in the development of the future workforce.

Recently STEMconnector, a leading STEM nonprofit, released their list of the 100 CEO Leaders in STEM. The list reaffirms the important role business plays in education. Learn from one of the CEOs listed, Alcoa’s CEO Klaus Kleinfeld, why STEM education is crucial to America’s competitiveness and how public-private partnerships may be the answer.

How do you believe STEM education can improve a nation's competitiveness?

Manufacturing plays a huge role in driving U.S. competitiveness, and STEM is vital to America’s success in manufacturing. Consider that manufacturing represents 68% of U.S. R&D spend, produces 90% of all patents developed in the U.S., and pays its employees higher average salaries than other industries. The impact grows when you then consider the “multiplier effect” of manufacturing jobs – for example, every Alcoa manufacturing job generates 2.5 to 3 additional jobs for our suppliers and partners.

According to a 2011 Skills Gap Survey by Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, 600,000 manufacturing jobs are unfilled because manufacturers cannot find qualified applicants with the right skills. Because this is hampering the nation’s ability to grow a stronger middle class, strengthen our economy and compete, it  means that we must invest in STEM to get people ready to take jobs in Advanced Manufacturing and  other industries requiring technical skills. 

How do we encourage students to continue their study of STEM subjects, particularly women and underrepresented minorities?

With a strong commitment to diversity among our 61,000 employees in 30 countries, Alcoa is uniquely positioned to form – and inform - initiatives that address educational and skill development challenges, particularly for girls and minorities:

In primary and middle schools, we support organizations like Academy of Model Aeronautics, which provides model airplane kits as a vehicle for promoting STEM education and careers.

At the high school level, we partner with Junior Achievement, which delivers hands-on curriculum and engages trained classroom volunteers. 

At the college level, we partner with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) to enlist college students to serve as mentors to girls on STEM projects. Through creative programming and ongoing involvement of dynamic female leaders in engineering, we want to inspire the next generation. We support similar partnerships with the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

What do corporations need to do to create more STEM careers and fill existing jobs?

According to a recent survey, only 20% of parents would want their children to pursue a manufacturing career. We have to change that perception by educating students, teachers, career counselors, and parents about the varied opportunities that advanced manufacturing offers – and that many require STEM skills.

In addition to rebranding manufacturing, corporations should invest in education, training, and apprenticeships; be advocates for the adoption of STEM common core standards in K-12 schools; and contributing financial resources and expertise to vocational and community college programs. 

Where do you see the biggest area of opportunity in advancing STEM jobs / careers?

Baby Boomers are retiring and the skills gap is growing. Many of these workers built careers as skilled tradesmen, operators and supervisors.  Today's manufacturers now often rely on precision machinery, computer modeling and high-tech tooling – skills far removed from the traditional assembly line and requiring some degree of competency in STEM disciplines.

Alcoa’s partnership with the Manufacturing Institute,a nonprofit research organization affiliated with the National Association of Manufacturers, is helping community colleges develop industry-recognized certification programs to individuals, including US Veterans. Developed with industry input and support, these programs give students a solid, relevant education they can take with them wherever the job market leads. States should build on this strong foundation and encourage community colleges to adopt and expand these programs.

What is your advice on using public -private partnerships to tackle our most pressing education challenges in STEM?

Among the 30 developed countries ranked by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. ranked 25th in math and 21st in science. We are woefully behind. The only way to change this situation is through public-private partnerships:  industry identifies the needed skills, schools provide training, and the public sector creates a supportive environment through policy and funding. 

One example is Alcoa’s partnership with Trident Tech College, a two-year technical college in Mt. Holly, South Carolina. Together with local manufacturers we developed the first U.S. Department of Labor-certified production technologist apprenticeship program. Apprentices attended classes one day per week and worked full-time for 18 months. Their replicable coursework had many applications in areas such as lean manufacturing, safety, problem solving, communications, and financial planning.

In an age of constrained resources, we need to be realistic about what we can ask government to do. The academic, NGO and business communities have an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution in STEM education and workforce development.  The key to success will be partnership.

Cross-posted from the BCLC blog.