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The business case for encouraging students to pursue a STEM education

Erin Craven is executive director of the safety and graphics business group at 3M Canada

Canada's economic future depends on having as many workers as possible who can think critically, make decisions and solve problems. It's how our economy – and our country – will remain competitive, whatever the rest of the world throws at us. And it's why leaders of just about every type of business in Canada need to encourage today's youth to embrace a science, technology, engineering or mathematics education, even if they aren't planning to go into a STEM career.

Clearly, a STEM degree is a prerequisite for many jobs, including computer programming, medicine, engineering (of all kinds) and environmental science. But such an education also opens the door to many other employment possibilities, with more than two-thirds of Canada's top jobs – from health care to skilled trades – requiring some level of STEM knowledge.

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The 2015 report of the Expert Panel on STEM Skills for the Future, chaired by former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge, confirmed that these skills provide people with options in uncertain labour markets and "are crucial for developing a skilled society that is prepared to respond to an uncertain future." Despite this, a majority of young Canadians are turning their backs on STEM education, with less than half of high school students graduating with senior STEM courses and only about one in four expressing an interest in pursuing a STEM career.

As leaders, we have to help them change their minds. After all, it's not that Canadian students can't do the courses – they consistently perform above the OECD average for science and math – but they seem to lose interest when STEM courses are no longer compulsory in high school, usually after Grade 10. This despite the fact that most students agree that science has relevance to their everyday lives and offers them many different career options. Indeed, as one report from 2012 noted, almost two-thirds of workers with a STEM undergraduate degree work in a non-STEM job, while those who do work in STEM fields enjoy higher pay on average and experience lower unemployment rates than workers in other fields.

It's not just science-based companies like 3M (where I work) that are impacted by this. Just about any business today would benefit from the skills people acquire through STEM training. But STEM-educated experts are in high demand and short supply, and securing the right talent – whether for labs and manufacturing environments or for industries as diverse as mining, health care and education – is highly competitive and projected to intensify over the next few years. And we're not only competing with other businesses in Canada to hire the best and the brightest, but with those from around the world.

All that competition will continue to drive up the cost of hiring these types of employees, unless we can bring supply into better balance with demand by inspiring today's students to study STEM subjects.

For businesses, that means demonstrating the direct, and indirect, connection between STEM learning and jobs. It means showing young people that STEM education gives them the broad training and critical thinking skills they need to develop meaningful, interesting careers, so they can do the things that matter to them – protect the environment, develop the latest technology to change the world or care for the weak and vulnerable in our society. And it means supporting initiatives designed to encourage children and youth to keep up their interest in science as they grow older.

One way we've found to do that is through our lead sponsorship of Canada 2067, a cross-country movement to inspire today's students to pursue STEM disciplines by helping them understand the benefits of such an education and explore potential STEM careers while encouraging their natural curiosity through science.

Now more than ever, Canada's economic future depends on brilliant, curious minds trained in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Whatever business you lead, it almost certainly will be stronger, more agile and better able to compete if its employees have been trained in a STEM discipline. By doing what you can to encourage more young people to pursue STEM training, you'll be ensuring a brighter, more prosperous future for them, for your business and for your country.

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Karl Moore sits down with Michele Rigolizzo from the Harvard Business School Special to Globe and Mail Update
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