Why STEM Education Is Crucial to the Longevity of Tech Communities

There’s a pervasive problem occurring in Phoenix. It’s no secret, but it’s an issue that few seem ready to address. The so-called “Valley of the Sun” — like other emerging tech hubs — has struggled to compete in this era of global digitalization. Of course, there are many contributing factors to this problem. Chief among them being that we’ve had a hard time attracting, incubating, and retaining the skilled workforce and future business leaders necessary to drive innovation.

This challenge is not unique to Phoenix. Business leaders in up-and-coming cities across the US are feeling the effects of a nearly dried-up source of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics talent needed to stay competitive. Technology and science have infiltrated nearly every sector of business, from health care to the automotive industry — even culinary arts. And with things like artificial intelligence, blockchain, and API integrations becoming more and more mainstream, the demand for that talent will only continue to grow.

With much of this innovation happening in the typical tech hotspots, it’s natural for talent to gravitate to those areas. But technology hubs like Seattle and Silicon Valley don’t owe their prosperity to the innovative tech companies that planted their roots there. These areas became hotbeds of innovation because they had the infrastructure in place to support the tech community’s rapid growth and evolution. These systems were further supported by their local education systems, which were built around fostering the talent needed to thrive in the tech sector.

Incubating Future Technologists

Arizona’s technology scene is just beginning to make small waves. We’re starting to attract more tech talent, but if we want to compete globally, we need to draw in technology companies and develop home-grown successes. And to do that, we we must properly educate the future generations of technologists who will lead the way. So, what’s the solution?

To me, the answer is clear: we must prioritize STEM education. This industry dominates the current market, and it shows no signs of slowing down. With all signs pointing to STEM as the future of our global economy, our younger generations need to prepare—and in order to do that, they need access to the right education. If Arizona were to position itself as a source of high-caliber STEM learning, the benefits to the state’s resource development potential would be obvious. But perhaps more importantly, it would play an integral role in attracting outside talent and innovation companies.

In fact, one of the first things developers and engineers ask before they uproot their families for a new job or entrepreneurial venture is, “What is the school system like?” If the answer to this question were an unequivocal “outstanding,” the decision to move across state lines would leave little room for debate.

Stepping Up in STEM

Arizona’s educational institutions, school districts, and organizations are making strides in the right direction. In fact, universities and institutions like Arizona State University, Grand Canyon University, University of Arizona, University of Advancing Technology, Galvanize, Year-Up Arizona, and others have introduced programs to attract more diverse groups to STEM fields. At the high school level, the Arizona Coding Academy, Basis, and Peoria’s MET (Medical, Engineering, and Technology) Professional Academy are supporting the development of a skilled workforce that will support the future needs of Arizona companies.

Arizona’s private businesses are also stepping to the plate. Numerous companies, including WebPT, are opening their workspaces and providing opportunities for students to gain real-world insight into what technologists do on a day-to-day basis. This is absolutely crucial to helping future leaders understand that a job in technology is not limited to coding. There are countless opportunities in STEM fields, and an education in STEM can even be applied to non-STEM careers.

Exposing students to local, burgeoning companies also helps them recognize the career potential that exists here in Phoenix –– and there is plenty of opportunity in our own backyard. It’s on us to make sure our state’s youth have the knowledge and confidence to pursue those opportunities — whether they be in health care, finance, law, software, manufacturing, or any other industry.

After all, it’s much easier to keep our talent here in Arizona than it is to recruit outside of state lines. And according to research published by The Change Equation, nationwide, jobs in STEM will grow by 21 percent between 2017 and 2027. Arizona, however, currently ranks 45th in the US for STEM degrees and certificates. Obviously, if we don’t put a concerted effort into engaging our youth in STEM, we will continue to come up short on talent that possesses the advanced skills necessary to meet the demand. And if that happens, the consequences could be dire for local businesses.

As I mentioned above, there are numerous communities throughout the US struggling to foster the next generation of innovators, problem-solvers, and collaborators. However, a focus on STEM education and involvement can help turn this around. Communities, future leaders, growing tech companies, and local economies simply can’t afford to overlook this issue any longer.

Read more about the Phoenix startup ecosystem on Tech.Co

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Written by:
Heidi Jannenga PT, DPT, ATC/L, is the president and co-founder of WebPT, a four-time Inc. 5000 honoree and the leading software solution for physical, occupational, and speech therapists. Heidi leads WebPT’s product vision, company culture, and branding efforts, while advocating for the physical therapy profession on a national scale. She's an APTA member, belonging to both the private practice and sports medicine sections, and she's a member of the PT-PAC Board of Trustees.
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