Getting Youth into STEM – National and Global Effects

Written by Lisa Suits and Jessica Baker, FHI 360 National Institute for Work and Learning

The world economy increasingly relies on the STEM disciplines for continued growth, expanding employment opportunity, and solutions to our greatest challenges. Clean energy, low-emissions transportation, stable food supplies, smart cities, human health, etc., depend on science, technology, engineering, math, manufacturing and design work: what we call STEM2D.

STEM careers — from mining to cancer research — encompass a breadth and depth of skills needed to respond to national and global challenges. These occupations are highly sophisticated and require advanced scientific and mathematical literacy.

STEM2D event in CorkAnd yet, while future growth and innovation depend on a strong STEM workforce, the field still lacks gender, racial, and ethnic diversity. For example, in the United States, Hispanic or Latino workers make up 18% of the U.S. workforce but represent 14% of STEM workers. Similarly, Black or African American workers make up 12% of the U.S. working population but represent only 9% of STEM workers[1]. Women make up only 16% of the science and engineering workforce.[2] What’s more, many young people have preconceived notions about STEM fields and careers: For example, “only geniuses can be engineers” or “I’m not good at math so I can’t be a scientist.” The lack of role models from diverse backgrounds plus limiting stereotypes often deter students from considering STEM.

Overcoming these barriers takes concentrated effort and continuous support. Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) Bridge to Employment (BTE) program has been preparing American and global youth to pursue studies and careers in STEM2D and healthcare fields for 30 years. Started in 1992, BTE inspires young people 14 – 18 years old to stay in school, make plans for higher education, and elevate their career aspirations. BTE helps young people residing in under-resourced communities, the majority of whom are girls and/or people of color, build solid futures. In 2021, 61% of all students served through BTE were young women, and many were the first in their families to go to college. BTE strives to:

  • Increase the number of youth who enroll in post-secondary education
  • Increase the number of youth pursuing a career in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Manufacturing, and Design (STEM2D) or healthcare sectors.

Through academic enrichment activities such as STEM2D demonstrations, career readiness and exploration opportunities, such as J&J tours, and higher education preparation, such as campus tours and application essay practice, BTE students learn meaningful and relevant information about various careers, feel motivated to pursue higher levels of academic progress, and take the steps necessary to build brighter futures to achieve their full potential. Furthermore, BTE connects students with J&J volunteers and mentors – helping students overcome negative stereotypes, build confidence and self-efficacy, and visualize themselves in STEM roles. Meeting college students, young professionals, and experienced professionals who look like them or come from similar backgrounds allows BTE students to understand STEM careers as something concrete and attainable, rather than an impossible-to-reach dream.

STEM Economy Stats BoxIn addition to building local support, BTE gives its participants a global view through learning workshops, team challenges, and contact with J&J volunteers and leaders outside their local context.

  • The annual Alliance Building and Training Session brings together participating BTE students from around the world, J&J volunteers, and local site coordinators to share ideas, vision, and experiences to move the program forward. Young people collaborate on projects across borders and time zones during the three-day event.
  • The BTE Youth Leadership Council is the voice of the participants. The Leadership Council members produce a newsletter, host events for other BTE students, and provide feedback to organizers. These activities build leadership and team skills, while promoting knowledge of other cultures.

The STEM economy is here, and it is being powered by STEM professionals. Johnson & Johnson’s Bridge to Employment program – through targeting underrepresented groups, continuous long-term support, and customizable programming – provides opportunities to help youth learn, grow, and contribute. BTE reports that 89% of student alumni pursue careers explored in the program, improving employment rates in the local community. This is a win-win for the students, their employers, and the world.

[1] National Science Foundation.  Science and Engineering Indicators, August 2021.

[2] National Science Foundation, Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering   National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, 2021.