STEM Leaders: Moving To The Head Of The Class

The battle for America’s future as a global technology leader is being waged in locations that have initiated innovative programs to increase the number of graduates with STEM skills.

By the BF Staff
From the March/April 2019 Issue

There’s a major crisis in America that will determine whether the United States can remain the world’s preeminent economic power and the global leader in technology. The crisis revolves around brainpower—specifically science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills, also known as STEM.

STEM skillsAmerica is not producing enough college graduates with STEM skills to fill the high-tech jobs that are driving the expansion of the U.S. economy. The shortfall can be counted in the millions, and it’s getting worse.

Exacerbating the situation is the fact that a large percentage of our STEM graduates are foreign students who take their skills and go after they get their diplomas. According to a report by the World Economic Forum, China has churned out at least 4.7 million recent STEM grads, India has been second with 2.6 million and the U.S. trails in third with an annual rate of about 568,000.

Here’s the good news: locations around the nation, at the state and metro levels, are bringing higher education resources and business leaders together to create innovative programs designed ensure an available workforce with the STEM skills needed for 21st Century jobs. The locations we’ve selected for our Editor’s Picks: STEM Leaders have extended job training and talent acquisition into the classroom and made sure the curricula is tailored to emerging high-tech growth sectors; when it comes to STEM skills, they’ve got the formula for success. Here’s a sampling what the folks ahead of the curve are doing, in their own words.


In addition to its many other accolades, Madison, Wisconsin and its surrounding areas rank fourth in the nation for its concentration of workers in computer and math occupations (BLS, 2017). In fact, the Madison Region experienced the second highest job growth in the nation for computer science and mathematics between 2007 and 2017 (BLS Occupational Employment Statistics).

The Region’s efforts to cultivate a STEM workforce begin at an early age. With employers and educators across the nation exploring new collaborative approaches to ensure the next generation is career and/or college-ready, Madison has seized the opportunity and launched Inspire Madison Region, a regional talent-development initiative of the Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP). Inspire makes it possible for students in the Madison Region to connect via an interactive web-based platform to career coaches and local employers for experiential learning activities such as job shadowing, internships, and youth apprenticeships.

“Inspire Madison Region helps students refine their future occupational goals and provides an opportunity for companies to take an active role in building their future workforce by connecting with students,” said Paul Jadin, President of Madison Region Economic Partnership, adding, “This is especially important in an economy in which a shortage of workers is a major challenge.” Currently, over 78,000 middle and high-school students in the Madison region have access through the program to over 500 regional employers offering 5000+ experiential learning activities and over 1800 career coaches statewide.

In addition to Inspire, school districts within the Region continue to introduce Fabrication Laboratories (Fab Labs) to help support the growth of the local talent pipeline. Fab Labs support science, technology, engineering, arts and math education by providing hands-on learning opportunities for students utilizing up-to-date equipment and technologies in cooperation with the local community and through interactive connections with other Fab Labs worldwide. To underscore its commitment to growing the Fab Lab network across the Region and statewide, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) has created a Fab Lab Grant program to support the efforts of school districts to establish these facilities. One of the communities to benefit from these grants is Beaver Dam. “The Community of Beaver Dam, in cooperation with local manufacturing industries, made the commitment to provide an exceptional Fab Lab for our High School students,” said Beaver Dam Mayor Rebecca Glewen. “The Fab Lab gives our students some of the best opportunities in the state to learn real-world technology and gives Beaver Dam students a competitive advantage in the technology-driven manufacturing market.”

Building upon efforts within the public education system, community organizations within the Region actively support the growth of a STEM workforce through their technology and coding education programs. Three noteworthy examples are the Info Tech Academy (ITA), Maydm and the YWeb Career Academy. ITA is a pre-college initiative administered by the University of Wisconsin-Madison with the goal of increasing enrollment rates of diverse students at the university. Through ITA, high school students build technical knowledge and skills with hands-on training, academic support, mentoring, leadership development, community service and internship opportunities. A local organization, Maydm, provides girls and youth of color in grades 6-12 with skill-based training for the technology sector. Maydm prepares students from traditionally underrepresented populations to engage in and revolutionize the tech industry. The YWeb Career Academy, a program of the YWCA Madison, is an employment service program that trains women and people of color to become web developers/designers.

“Our YWeb Career Academy is transforming lives and generations,” said YWCA Madison CEO Vanessa McDowell. “Many of our students come to us unemployed or underemployed and leave us with careers and family-sustaining jobs. The success of our program is due to the commitment of our staff, students, and partners.” Each cohort is composed of 20–25 students and the program includes 400 hours of intensive technical training. Students are expected to complete job-related projects and work outside of class time and to be actively engaged in the learning process.

While the public education system and community organizations provide substantial resources to support graduating high school students with marketable STEM skills, the Madison Region also has a high density of post-secondary education. In fact, 65% of Madison Region residents have pursued post-secondary education (U.S. Census Bureau). Additionally, UW-Madison recently announced their 2017 classes graduated more doctorates than any other U.S. institution that year (UW-Madison). Both the state university and technical schools have invested heavily in continuing to cultivate a STEM workforce in the Region.

Madison Area Technical College (MATC) features a STEM Academy, administered in partnership with the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD). “We collaborated with to create a STEM Academy for high school juniors and seniors that focuses on providing traditional STEM and Health programs leading to transfer and/or early entry into the workforce,” said MATC President Dr. Jack E. Daniels, III. “Students will be able to earn college credit for courses taken at MATC that will lead to many students attaining an Associate of Science degree at the same time they receive their high school diploma. The courses taken will all be transferable to 4-year institutions. This Academy was created with no cost to the students or the families for tuition, fees and learning materials. The Academy will serve 200 students when it is fully operational and will be housed at the new Goodman South Campus of MATC.”

UW-Madison boasts a robust comp sci program with a fall 2018 enrollment of 1923. In addition, the university’s innovative iSchool offers information-education programs from a global top-25 university for a wide variety of students around the world. Areas of concentration available include Librarianship, Archives in a Digital Age, Information Organization, Data Management & Analytics and UX & Information Technology. iSchool students can study both on campus and online.

Strategic programming, combined with a concentration of high-tech businesses, cultivates a robust STEM workforce in the Madison Region. One particularly noteworthy high-tech business, Epic Systems, actively recruits STEM talent to the region to grow its steadily increasing workforce of 9,800. The unique combination of Epic, UW-Madison, and the Region’s tech schools feed over 1,000 workers with tech talent into the Madison Region economy each year (National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau LEHD).


Houston has long been known as a business-friendly, growth-driven market that offers a low cost of doing business and cost of living. Since 2010, Houston is among America’s fastest-growing metros and has created more than 530,000 jobs in the last decade.

STEM skills
The Ion, a 270,000-square-foot innovation district, will serve as the center of Houston’s innovation corridor.

Much of this success is driven by Houston’s deep bench of STEM talent, powering not only the energy industry, but Houston’s leading life sciences, manufacturing and logistics sectors. Houston offers one of the nation’s highest densities of engineers, corporate and IT workers experienced in designing and managing some of the world’s most complex systems. A strong university system with five nationally-ranked universities and graduate schools produce a large supply of young talent. In fact, Houston is a top city in the United States for STEM grads and engineering talent with more than 300,000 educated millennials and 240,000 STEM workers.

Not only is Houston’s talent base extensive, it is also exceptionally diverse. The New York Times calls Houston “America’s Most Diverse City,” as there is no ethnic majority and the fact that one in four Houstonians is foreign born. Houston also offers the youngest workforce in the country, with a median age of 34.4 years.

Much of Houston’s success as a top market from STEM talent was originally-derived from Houston’s position as the Energy Capital of the World. The Houston region is the global energy headquarters and intellectual epicenter for virtually every segment of the energy industry, including a growing focus on renewables and digital technology.

Houston is also at the forefront of advancing life sciences, thanks to the Texas Medical Center, the largest collection of healthcare and life science institutions in the world. As the home of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston is at the cutting edge of advanced technologies, helping to develop the science that will one day send humans into deep space, and here on earth, advancing our understanding of health and the human body.

Houston has long been known for its engineering prowess. A majority of Houston’s technology talent is embedded in the area’s largest industries such as energy and health care, however sub-sectors such as software development, robotics and data analytics are rapidly growing. In recent years, the region has seen one of the largest overall increases in tech talent in the nation.

As Houston’s legacy industries are digitizing and developing new technologies, companies in the digital technology space have found that Houston has the infrastructure in place for their companies to thrive because of access to customers and talent.

Today, Houston is home to over 500 digital technology companies. Notable players include Hewlett Packard Enterprises, Oracle, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft, IBM, Alert Logic, BMC, High Radius, Idera, Pros, and Quorum, to name a few. In addition, over 8,200 companies are in technology-related industries such as engineering services, telecommunications, computer training and repair. More than 233,000 professionals are employed in Houston’s technology sector, which has a $26.6 billion impact on the local economy.

It’s no secret that Houston is undergoing a digital tech revolution. In just the last two years, Houston’s civic and business leaders united to create the 4-mile long Innovation Corridor stretching from the downtown home of our Fortune 500 companies to the Texas Medical Center, all along a light rail line.

At the center of the Innovation Corridor, Rice University has announced The Ion, a $100 million innovation hub in the heart of the corridor. The Texas Medical Center has announced TMC3, a transformational research hub that will cluster researchers and industry experts together on a collaborative 30-acre campus.

A growing network of accelerators and incubators are helping to sustain a strong crop of tech startups in Houston. Station Houston, a nonprofit accelerator, has provided office space and mentorship to hundreds of promising tech entrepreneurs since its launch in 2016. TMCx, the Texas Medical Center’s life science incubator, has drawn international acclaim for its success bringing life science technology startups to market. Johnson & Johnson’s JLABs accelerator at TMC is home to 51 resident companies in health therapeutics and software. The Cannon, a co-working tech space in Northwest Houston is home to dozens of energy and sports technology startups. WeWork has three office locations in Houston, including a downtown location that is home WeWork’s Flatiron school, which offers a 15-week course in full-stack web development.

The momentum we have built has not gone unnoticed. Verizon announced Houston would be among the first three cities in the U.S. to get 5G service. Boston-based MassChallenge announced plans to open a new office in Downtown Houston. Palo Alto fintech company,, choose Houston to expand operations as the company enters a new phase of growth.

City leaders continue to cultivate unique partnerships with local universities and community organizations to focus on building the pipeline of STEM talent. The Rice University Business Plan Competition is the world’s largest graduate-level student startup competition, with teams from around the world competing for more than $1 million in cash and prizes. Houston Community College is one of six colleges in the country to collaborate with Apple and offer iOS Coding and Design School that trains students to develop IOS Apple apps and coding in the iOS Apple platform. The University of Houston’s Stephen Stagner Sales Excellence Institute has expanded their program to include a Tech Sales Academy.

In the coming years, Houston is poised to become a powerhouse in the growing sectors of renewable energy, artificial intelligence and commercial space flight. Today, Scientists here are already hard at work on the technological challenges of tomorrow. The city that put men on the moon, invented the artificial heart and powered the world for over a century will remain a STEM leader for the foreseeable future.


Think of it as a simple mathematical equation: History + culture + resources = STEM leadership. Together, they account for why the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area is a humming technology hub, recognized for nurturing startups and helping business giants thrive.

STEM skills
3M, a Fortune 100 firm headquartered in the Twin Cities, opened the 3M Carlton Science Center, a research and development laboratory, in 2016. 3M has long been a driver of STEM employment in the region. (Photo: 3M)

These three factors also give the Twin Cities metro area a strong boost in overcoming the tech workforce challenges that are facing cities across the country.

First, a glance at the region’s history. Minneapolis-St. Paul has long been a leader in STEM advances—a place where engineers and scientists could be part of an ecosystem of that has not only developed countless successful products, but also saved and improved millions of lives across the globe.

In information technology, this foundation was laid in the 1950s and ‘60s with computer pioneers like Control Data Corp., Honeywell and the Engineering Research Associates. Later, the University of Minnesota contributed key advances to computer networking through its Gopher protocol. Today, these IT capabilities are reflected in the burgeoning number of Twin Cities businesses in areas like FinTech and the Internet of Things.

Meanwhile, the invention of the first wearable transistorized cardiac pacemaker—in a Minneapolis garage in the 1950s—grew into Medtronic, now the world’s largest medical device company, which has its operational headquarters in the Twin Cities. Today, the region is a global hub for medical devices and a leader in health informatics and many other medical technologies.

A small-scale mining venture started in northern Minnesota in 1902 failed in mining, but pivoted and grew into 3M, a Fortune 100 with more than 60,000 products and operations in 70 countries. The company—headquartered in the Twin Cities where it employs more than 10,000 people—ranked as the top preferred workplace in the nation for millennials in a 2016 survey.

Early industry successes like these gave rise to a culture of STEM innovation and collaboration—in which employees with expertise in one industry have shared their knowledge with other industries through career advancements, startups, spinoffs, consulting and mentoring. This has helped businesses of all sizes grow and has given rise to a large pool of STEM and managerial talent with broad and deep expertise.

This helps explain why Minneapolis-St. Paul ranks first in Fortune 500 companies per capita. As of early 2019, there were 18 Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the Twin Cities. These include companies like 3M, Ecolab, Xcel Energy and UnitedHealth Group as well as financial giants like U.S. Bancorp, Ameriprise Financial, Securian Financial and Thrivent Financial—all of which have technology needs that have helped drive STEM employment growth.

A culture of innovation also explains why the Twin Cities metro area is a patent powerhouse. Among the 30 largest metro areas, Minneapolis-St. Paul ranks first in medical device patents and eighth in all patents. Medical device manufacturing in the Twin Cities’ metro area now employs almost 30,000 people and is nearly six times more concentrated than the national average (location quotient: 5.78 in 2018).

What’s more, it’s key to why the Twin Cities—and the state as a whole—are able to nurture successful startups. Minnesota ranks third in five-year business survival (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013-2018) and third in Startup Early Survival Rate (Kauffman Indicators of Entrepreneurship, 2019). At the same time, Minneapolis-St. Paul ranks as the third best city for startups (, 2018) and sixth among the top 10 cities with the youngest entrepreneurs (LendingTree, 2018).

Undergirding this business success is the third piece of the equation: Resources. These include a robust combination of state and local government programs; public-private partnerships; nonprofit industry and professional associations; educational institutions; and a growing number competitions, conferences, networking events, accelerators, incubators and coworking spaces.

Together, these represent systematic efforts by leaders, educators and other stakeholders in Minneapolis-St. Paul—and the state as a whole—to continue to attract, develop and retain STEM-driven businesses and STEM talent. Here are a few examples.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), the state’s principal economic development agency, oversees financial assistance and incentive programs and provides expertise to help businesses get started and expand. Through one such program—the Minnesota Jobs Skills Partnership (MJSP)—businesses can partner with an accredited educational institution to develop customized training for new and existing employees. MJSP has helped train almost 70,000 people since 2011. Education, workforce development and tech sector growth are priorities for Minnesota’s new governor Tim Walz and DEED’s new commissioner Steve Grove. A number of proposals are under consideration by the state legislature.

Greater MSP, a regional economic development organization, has spearheaded a talent retention and attraction initiative called “Make It. MSP.” This employer-led collaborative effort has involved more than 200 direct partners, including Fortune 500s, colleges and universities, professional associations, community groups, government entities and others. Its data-driven efforts have focused on welcoming and onboarding newcomers, better retaining professionals of color, attracting technology talent, and converting interns and college graduates into employees. The initiative was recognized as a national leader in 2018, receiving a Gold Award from the International Economic Development Council.

More recently, Greater MSP launched a new campaign, dubbed “Develop in MSP,” to recruit technology industry workers and firms to the region. It includes a new website, a web campaign and targeted advertising.

Other organizations are also working to attract and train STEM students and to provide ongoing education for STEM professionals. These include Medical Alley Association, MinneAnalytics and the Minnesota High Tech Association, a nonprofit science and technology association that oversees the SciTechsperience Internship Program for college students in STEM disciplines. Launched in 2012, the program has helped nearly 1,300 students find paid internships in small- to medium-sized science and technology companies.

STEM-related competitions, conferences and networking opportunities abound. The 4th annual Twin Cities Startup Week last October drew a record number of attendees—about 15,600 people. It included a popular fly-in program that offered out-of-state residents $300 to travel to the Twin Cities for the event—which in 2018 drew 185 applications and 36 visitors.

The annual MNCup is billed as the largest, most impactful statewide startup competition in the world. Founded in 2005, this public-private partnership has had over 16,000 participants and given away almost $3 million in seed funding. Its alumni have gone on to raise nearly $400 million in capital.

IOT Fuse is an annual conference for the area’s growing Internet of Things community that draws more than 1,500 people from more than 400 organizations.

Among the growing number of accelerators based in the Twin Cities are:

  • Techstars Farm to Fork Accelerator, focused on the tech/digital side of food and agriculture and developed in partnership with Cargill and Ecolab.
  • Target Techstars Retail Accelerator is entering its fourth year, now in partnership with Germany-based Metro AG.
  • OnRamp Insurance Accelerator is a partnership between Allianz Life, Securian Financial and Gener8tor.
  • gBeta Medtech is a Twin Cities medical technology accelerator launched in 2018 by Gener8tor in partnership with Boston Scientific, Mayo Clinic, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and Medical Alley Association.
  • A new partnership between Gener8tor and the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas provides professional accelerator services at the university: gALPHA, a venture creation workshop, and gBETA, a seven-week start-up accelerator.

Minnesota has one of the most educated workforces in the nation. It’s first in the nation for percentage of the population with a high school diploma and 10th in the nation for percentage with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The Twin Cities have an even higher percentage than the rest of the state—with 40 percent people 25 or older having a bachelor’s degree or higher. Educational resources include:

  • The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, which ranks ninth in the nation for research expenditures (National Science Foundation, 2017). It offers 22 Master’s of Science degree programs and has hundreds of research centers, institutes and laboratories for specialties that include digital technology, distributed robotics, medical devices and health informatics. Its graduate chemical engineering program ranks fifth in the nation (U.S. News & World Report, 2019).
  • The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (“Minnesota State”) is the third largest public college university system in the nation with 37 colleges and universities on 54 campuses across the state—including a dozen in the Twin Cities—offering more than 350 master’s and applied doctoral programs.
  • University of St. Thomas, which offers a graduate certificate in Internet of Things, is home to the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship in its Opus College of Business.

Studies have shown that people who move to Minneapolis-St. Paul are loath to leave. University of Minnesota Professor Miles Shaver found that the Twin Cities ranks first in overall professional talent retention among the 25 largest U.S. metro areas.

It helps to be one of the best places to live. Recent quality of life rankings include: Best State for Women and Best State to Raise a Family (WalletHub, 2019); and second or third place in Quality of Life from U.S. News & World Report, Forbes and CNBC (2018).

What’s more, Minneapolis-St. Paul recently ranked as the ninth best metro area for STEM Professionals (WalletHub, 2019) and as one of the Top 10 Rising Cities for Startups (Forbes, 2018). The question really isn’t “Why is Minneapolis-St. Paul a STEM leader?” but why did it take so long for the rest of the nation to notice.


In order to stay competitive and innovative in the digital age, today’s organizations know they need talent that’s fluent in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Though this imperative has put the state of STEM education front-of-mind for employers and leaders at the federal level, it’s been easier said than done when it comes to achieving a future-ready workforce. Last year, 40 percent of Americans agreed that our STEM worker shortage is at a “crisis level.” And though STEM-related jobs have been growing at triple the rate of non-STEM jobs, only 17 percent of American undergraduates earn their bachelor’s in a STEM field.

The National Association of Manufacturing and Deloitte estimate that as many as 2 million STEM-related jobs in manufacturing alone may go unfilled by 2025. To help remove barriers to STEM education across the nation and increase STEM literacy, late last year the federal government announced a five-year strategy for STEM education. According to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, our country’s economic prosperity and national security is at stake if we don’t prepare today’s students for STEM-related employment.

While sweeping national STEM initiatives are helpful, they are just a beginning. To speed things along, many states—notably, the nation’s smallest state, Rhode Island—are putting an outsized emphasis on local support, rolling out programs and initiatives designed to meet the distinct needs of both students and employers in their specific region.

“Businesses want to be in places where there’s a talent pipeline,” Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo told The Pawtucket Times early in her first term. “And that’s going to be Rhode Island.” For her state, that’s meant developing and promoting an array of STEM-supporting programs and projects meant to grow STEM literacy across the state and to attract and retain businesses that prize local STEM talent.

An array of programs and initiatives launched during Raimondo’s tenure have put a focus not just on spurring and supporting STEM education, but on retaining STEM-skilled talent and attracting STEM-appreciating employers, too.

In 2015, only one percent of Rhode Island high school students enrolled in computer science courses. Just 42 students in the state took the AP Computer Science exam. Those numbers prompted the launch of Computer Science for Rhode Island, or CS4RI, with a goal of having computer science taught in every Rhode Island public school by the end of 2017.

Rhode Island reached that goal, becoming the first state to include computer science curriculum in all of its schools, and quickly saw results. Today the number of AP programs in Rhode Island has tripled and the number of students taking the AP exam has grown by 500 percent. The program trained more than 850 educators, and students have earned more than 2,500 college credits in computer science.

Starting in 2016, Rhode Island also implemented the P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) program. This free public high school program—a collaboration between the state and local business and industry groups like Johnson & Johnson and CVS Health —gives students an opportunity to complete credits towards an associate’s degree while in high school. P-TECH looks to industry partners to help inform the curriculum, link students with professional mentors and offer paid internships. Graduates of the five Rhode Island P-TECH programs then have a direct pipeline to local employment in line with their studies, or a solid foundation to build on at a four-year university.

Rhode Island has extended support and focus beyond K-12 education, as well, with the Wavemaker Fellowship, which offers loan forgiveness to recent college graduates who have obtained associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in STEM and design fields, and who have committed to working full-time in Rhode Island. To date, the program has benefitted hundreds of students who’ve gone on to work for major organizations in Rhode Island, from Hasbro to Lockheed Martin—a benefit to students, their Rhode Island employers, and the state overall.

Even students who opt not to pursue university degrees have access to STEM-related support in Rhode Island, via the Real Jobs Rhode Island initiative, launched in 2015. It was designed to provide employer-centered skills training to Rhode Island workers, to boost the skills of local workers and ensure that local employers have access to skilled talent, right at home. The program works through industry partnerships and flexible grants, and by early 2019, Real Jobs RI had helped almost 800 employers place nearly 3,000 new hires, and assisted thousands of other workers and entrepreneurs with gaining new skills.

Job hunters and candidate-seeking businesses in Rhode Island can also seek out help from the Skills for Rhode Island’s Future (Skills RI) initiative, a nonprofit, public-private partnership designed to connect local businesses with unmet hiring needs—many of them STEM-related—to qualified candidates. Employers benefit from program pre-screening and access to training funds that can help mold candidates to meet specific needs. And candidates can access free training, job-search assistance and advocacy along the way.

Those are only a few of the state’s STEM-supporting initiatives and the emphasis on STEM is already delivering wins for Rhode Island. Among them: a Providence technology and innovation hub opened in early 2019 by tech giant Infosys, which is in the middle of hiring 10,000 American workers.

The company expects 500 of those jobs to be in Rhode Island—100 hires have already been made—and it has been partnering with Rhode Island schools (including Rhode Island School of Design and the Community College of Rhode Island) to identify and train homegrown talent.

In early 2019, Governor Raimondo issued a proclamation designating March as “STEAM Month” in Rhode Island, encouraging every resident to learn about STEAM and discover ways to be involved. (STEAM representing the addition of Arts and design-related fields to the traditional definition of STEM.) “A diverse and inclusive STEAM-talented workforce is critical for Rhode Island’s ability to adapt and compete in the global economy,” the proclamation read.

What is happening in Rhode Island represents a microcosm of what can happen nationwide when state and local leaders band together with employers and citizens to create a lattice of STEM education initiatives relevant for all ages and stages of an education or career.