January 2014 | Christabelle Noronha

Learning to STEM the tide

Tata Consultancy Services is leading a pan-Tata effort in North America to provide a much-needed push for education that equips students for careers in information technology businesses

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. It’s a potent proverb, but what happens if no one is interested in learning how to fish? That’s the state of affairs confronting the United States and, to a lesser extent, Canada in the matter of finding competent college graduate candidates to fill positions in information technology businesses.

TCS North America team members with educators and government officials at a computer science executive round table held in September 2013 in Washington, DC

While the demand in North America for IT workers has increased over the last decade, the number of students graduating with computer science degrees has decreased significantly, and university-level enrolment in infotech-relevant fields has decreased by 60 percent. This has forced companies to invest increasing resources in hiring qualified candidates, rather than fresh graduates, for critical jobs in their organizations. It’s a situation that has educators and government officials, as much as corporate entities, worried — and more than open to accepting help to rectify the situation.

That’s where the Tata group, primarily through Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), comes into the picture. The aim here is to support the cause of what is known as STEM education in the United States. This quite appropriate acronym represents fields of study in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and is most commonly attached to education policy and choice of syllabi (from school to college) that influence a country’s competitiveness in technology development.

The seeding of workforce skills, national security concerns and immigration policy are all affected by the quality of STEM education a country can deliver to its youth. The Obama administration has committed $3.1 billion to improve STEM education across America, and several companies, foundations and nonprofits are partnering schools and communities to provide more opportunities in targeted study fields for students. The endeavors of TCS and other Tata companies are of a piece with this national drive for STEM education rejuvenation.

Through nationwide collaborations, key programs and thought leadership, TCS is tapping into its core consulting and infotech competencies to help increase the visibility of, and accessibility to, STEM careers. There is necessity and altruism at work here. For some years now, TCS and similar companies have understood the reality that computer science as a career has declined in popularity in the United States and Canada. “We feel the pinch because we are losing out on potential future employees,” says Balaji Ganapathy, head of workforce effectiveness, TCS North America.

TCS has 22,000 employees in North America and hires close to 2,000 people from the continent annually. In 2013 only about 175 of these were campus recruits. This year TCS has set a target of hiring 500 new graduates from college campuses across the United States and Canada. It has its work cut out as competition is high and recruits are limited.

The American infotech industry currently needs some 130,000 graduates every year. The country produces only 65,000, a significant portion of them international students, making the actual number of American graduates quite low. Why so?

In the United States, 36 of 50 states do not even recognize computer science as an ‘advanced placement’ course. “Computer science is not even offered in high schools and just 17 percent of 12th graders say they are interested in STEM subjects,” explains Mr Ganapathy. “Of this number, nearly half drop STEM subjects in college. How are we going to train skilled employees? We have an abundance of jobs being created and an incredibly concerning lack of primary skills required to execute these jobs.”

To address this situation, TCS is using a multi-pronged approach that aims to drive significant interest among schoolchildren and college incumbents in exploring STEM fields and computer science.

Partnership approach
TCS has three national partnerships: STEMconnector, Npower and US2020. STEMconnector is a kind of clearing house that drives collaboration between stakeholders in STEM education. Its task force brings together professionals and leaders from across the industry to pool resources and work towards creating a solution.

One example of the thought leadership TCS brings to this task is a publication it recently sponsored. Called ‘100 CEO leaders in STEM,’ it highlighted the views of corporate leaders who are the biggest consumers of STEM talent in the United States. TCS used its analytics expertise in this pro-bono project to publish a white paper on the subject, and hosted the findings on a microsite that provided a unified voice for corporate America on STEM education.

Former American president Bill Clinton (centre) at a June 2013 event to push high-quality STEM education and careers

Another significant effort was a computer science executive round table that TCS convened. This brought together 30 different organizations, representatives from the White House, the United States Chamber of Commerce, policymakers, educators, writers and statisticians on STEM subjects. The idea was to develop clarity on issues such as state and federal policy, curriculum development, school resources and teacher training.

“Thought leadership is a key arena where we are ramping up engagement, which is why Surya Kant, our president of the geography, represents us in these forums,” says Mr Ganapathy. “There are other leaders from TCS who participate in these forums to add the corporate social responsibility, human resources and talent points of view.”

Another key TCS partner is NPower, a New York-based group that helps new organizations access technology services. TCS is the top supplier of skilled employee volunteers for this program. In turn, NPower has enabled skilled volunteers from TCS to engage local community organizations with technology services and education.

One such community is women. TCS is a founding sponsor of Million Women Mentors (MWM), an initiative led by STEMconnector in partnership with the National Girls Collaborative Project, NPower and MentorNet. The idea is to enhance interest in STEM education and careers for girls and women. “The focus is on promoting the interest of girls who are choosing STEM careers,” says Caitlin Olson, STEM program manager, TCS North America. “Right now it is at 12-17 percent [of total enrolment]; we want to push it to at least 20 percent, if not further.”

US2020 is another national initiative in which TCS is a partner. This initiative encourages corporate volunteerism for high-impact STEM mentoring. The goal is to have 20 percent of TCS’s American workforce volunteer for at least 20 hours a year as mentors for students interested in STEM education and careers, providing the expertise and real-world perspective to participants. “I often get asked in forums about how we encourage volunteering,” says Ms Olson. “I tell them that it’s a relatively easy process, because we are a part of the Tata group and volunteering is part of our value system.”

Technology factor
As a technology partner, TCS is leading the development efforts to build the US2020 and MWM platforms. These are examples of the way the company uses its technology expertise to create an impact. “By using technology you create this platform which, in the next five years, is going to connect 2 million people from the corporate sector with students and others from the stakeholder groups who are being mentored,” says Mr Ganapathy.

TCS has also been a more than enthusiastic participant in a variety of events aimed at promoting STEM education in the United States. “These events give us different insights,” says Mr Ganapathy. “There is the skills gap viewpoint that employers see. Then there is the education gap, which is what administrators and nonprofits see.”

Apart from national platforms and advocacy initiatives, TCS is expending energy on local-level programs. The company has established campus relationships with 42 universities and higher education institutions in the United States to improve employability by developing industry-liaison programs that connect employers with promising students.

Another interesting program that has proved successful is the goIT program, where TCS conducts workshops on coding and robotics in schools throughout the year, culminating in regional summer camps. Aimed at children from grades 8 to 12, goIT was launched in 2009 in Cincinnati, Ohio. It has since grown to include Columbus, Ohio, Midland, Michigan, and is expanding to seven other cities across the United States and Canada.

“One of the challenges in expanding this program,” says Ms Olson, “is to standardize our approach, and to think about an engagement matrix that we can capture and follow. We are expanding goIT around the country, using a regional approach to a national crisis.”

The goIT program works closely at the national level with the United States Chamber of Commerce, which provides outreach support in each goIT location. One of the criteria for this support is that the schools which want to incorporate goIT should have a higher percentage of poor students and ethnic minorities.

The single thread that binds TCS’s multiple efforts in the STEM space is commitment. “We are trying to make an impact at different levels on this issue,” says Mr Ganapathy. “At a national level this means bringing attention to the problem and providing forums where solutions can be addressed. Second is using technology, which is the greatest enabler for scale and collaboration. The third is leading by example with our own volunteering efforts and local-level work.”

TCS is not the only Tata enterprise doing its part to boost STEM education in North America. Tata Technologies, Jaguar Land Rover and Tata Interactive Systems have joined the effort, but it is TCS that leads the way. The company’s many initiatives are helping people achieve careers they might not otherwise have access to, and making a vital contribution in addressing a national need. Teaching people to fish, though, is not on the agenda as of now. ¨

Building the pipeline
STEMconnector®, a leading organization for STEM education and careers, released a first-of-its-kind publication, ‘100 CEO Leaders in STEM’. The report, published in June 2013, presented 100 chief executive profiles and their thought-provoking views on the need for a STEM workforce.

Here are the top five focus areas emphasized by the CEOs:

  • Technology: The general assessment among CEOs is that the technology development of the United States will suffer if there is a shortage of STEM talent.
  • Women and diversity: Women and minorities represent 28 percent of the US workforce, but only 7 percent of the STEM workforce. These groups present a significant opportunity for CEOs to source the needed STEM skills.
  • Innovation: The CEOs agree that creativity and innovation are the keys to future job creation and economic growth. Creativity and innovation will be driven by STEM talent.
  • Economy: The CEOs say STEM jobs are, and always will be, readily available. Over the next 10 years an estimated 80 percent of jobs in the US will require technology skills, and by 2018 the US will have more than 1.2 million new STEM-related occupations. More employees with STEM skills equates to a lower unemployment rate.
  • Competitiveness: STEM education will be a win-win for the nation’s economic competitiveness. A technology-savvy workforce is the key to driving innovation, production, profitability and economic growth.