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Monday, March 30, 2015

Opinion: Strengthening New Jersey's future through STEM

Written by Kim Guadagno

NEW JERSEY has long been a hotspot for innovation. Albert Einstein developed the theory of relativity here. The light bulb, the phonograph, robots and LCD — all of these and more were invented in New Jersey.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM, are critical drivers to prosperity in this state. Fourteen of the 20 largest biopharmaceutical companies call New Jersey home. New Jersey boasts the best STEM public high school in the country and is home to more scientists and engineers per square mile than anywhere in the world. In short, New Jersey is highly educated and perfectly located, and we aim to keep it that way.

The most successful and highest performing companies have incorporated technology into their core business models. Earlier this month, I joined the New Jersey Tech Council Conference for Chief Information and Information Security Officers and honored those members of our business community who use technology to protect their companies’ vital information. I have personally met with leaders of more than 700 companies, and the more I learn about New Jersey’s growing business community, the more I have come to understand that nearly every company is a technology company in one way or another, using it in their business or to connect people to their business.

Think about how many businesses and organizations have an app, or an interactive website. Think about how we use the Internet to pay our bills and file our taxes. Think about how often we use our smartphones and social media in every part of our lives — for example, I just announced an initiative to increase social media involvement in our tourism industry.

STEM is influencing every industry. In recent events with the agricultural community, I’ve learned how their work depends more than ever on technology. Once an industry that relied entirely on hand tools and tractors, agriculture now requires knowledge of hydrology, GPS technology, mechanization and animal and soil science. We’ve already begun seeing the rise of urban farms and greenhouse agriculture growing over once-blighted fields.

We recognize the role of STEM leadership in New Jersey and in the United States, but there is so much more to do. This year, the week of March 9 marked New Jersey’s inaugural STEM Week, highlighting how uniquely important STEM careers are to this state.

During that week, I attended a meeting of the New Jersey STEM Pathways Network, which has been spearheaded by Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks to increase collaboration between community organizations, higher education and industry to prepare our students for the highly skilled STEM jobs that will be waiting for them when they graduate.

In the past decade, STEM jobs outpaced non-STEM jobs 3-to-1, with 80 percent of the fastest-growing occupations in the United States dependent on STEM knowledge and skills. Having a strong STEM education and workforce system in place will continue to drive New Jersey’s competitive edge.

Our next step needs to be creating a system that supports both men and women with an interest in STEM. While girls in Grades K-12 are taking many high level math and science courses at the same rates as boys, there is a significant gap in the number of young women pursuing and receiving STEM degrees. On the national level, women receive far fewer computer science, engineering, physics and mathematics degrees than men, and the gap is even wider when it comes to minority women. Women comprise 48 percent of the United States workforce but fill just 24 percent of STEM jobs.

The employment gap is frustrating enough, but it becomes even more so when you consider that the gender wage gap in STEM fields is significantly smaller than in other occupations. What that means is that supporting women in STEM is not only important to our efforts to remain innovative and educated, but must be an integral part of the progress we make toward greater economic success and equal wage opportunities for women here in New Jersey and across the nation.

I was proud to address both STEM Week and Women’s History Month in my kick-off of the Million Women Mentors program in New Jersey. As we remember the leaders of the past, we prepare the leaders of the future by encouraging more high school girls to consider STEM studies in college, more undergraduate women to pursue STEM degrees, and more women into STEM careers generally.

We have committed to finding 6,000 mentors over the next three years — that’s three or four per municipality each year. It’s doable, and it’s necessary. I ask New Jersey’s teachers, researchers, business leaders and anyone with an interest in STEM to invest their time and expertise to help New Jersey remain competitive, achieve gender parity in the workplace and show young women the value of a STEM career.

This year’s inaugural STEM Week showed us great things about the state of STEM in New Jersey, but the biggest thing we learned is that we need more than a week to keep STEM in mind. We need to highlight STEM careers and encourage our young people to pursue them every week, all year long, to prepare our children and our state for a bright future.

Kim Guadagno is lieutenant governor of New Jersey.

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