National Security Depends on Tech-Savvy Talent
Global competitiveness in tech sector requires larger pipeline of STEM students.
From plumbing to space travel, the vast majority of future good-paying jobs will involve technology. Not only will these careers offer regularly increased salaries but also opportunities for advancement and, even more importantly, independence. These are some of Irma Becerra’s beliefs borne of personal experience, a deep passion for technology and a personal purpose in education.
Becerra has gained her experience from when she was in high school and Mrs. Greenberg, one of her senior-year teachers, took the extra time Becerra needed to understand calculus, to her current position as president of Marymount University. “When I started college, I started in thinking about science—chemistry, mathematics and computer science, but when I found engineering, I found my passion,” she explains.
It was after college while working at Florida Power and Light as an engineer in charge of coding a computer model to monitor the power system grid reliability that Becerra discovered her purpose—quite accidently. It was the years when Total Quality Management was on the lips of most corporate managers. Becerra volunteered to become one of the facilitators who examined jobs, processes, predictable outcomes and how to improve them.
“I really discovered my love for adult education,” she explains. “I loved my career in engineering, but I found my purpose in academia, and I never turned back. The opportunity to make an impact is why I love my job every day. I look forward to it for that purpose: the opportunity to have an impact for others.”
Now, as a university president, Becerra reflects wisely on the changes in the culture, marketplace and opportunities since she joined the workforce in the early 1980s, particularly as they apply to women in STEM.
Culturally, more women are entering technical fields today. Nearly four decades ago, Becerra often was the only female in her math and engineering courses. A “weed out” attitude among professors and other students, which expected all students to understand technical material quickly, left many less-fortunate students behind.
“If you’re studying a career that involves mathematics, every year matters. One year builds on what you learned the year before,” she points out. For example, a student who doesn’t understand trigonometry struggles with precalculus, which leads to the inability to understand calculus. “So, if one year, you have a teacher that’s not strong, then you’re left with a hole that’s hard to fill,” she explains.
Becerra was fortunate to have Mrs. Greenberg in grade 12 for calculus. The teacher not only was willing to spend extra time with her after school but also fought for her to receive the overall highest grade in mathematics, even though Becerra had only been a student at the high school for a single year.
In addition, when she began her career, workplace setups were more rigid with set hours that had to be worked onsite and maternity leave was oftentimes limited to four weeks plus two weeks of annual vacation.
Even the perceptions of STEM fields alienated many from pursuing technical careers. It wasn’t until the geeky, pocket-protector-wearing image of engineers was replaced by one of tech-savvy millionaire entrepreneurs did more young people take a second look at STEM as offering a possible career path.
Technology advances have enabled changes in STEM jobs as well. From the ability to work remotely to conducting research via the Internet rather than spending hours in a library, these improvements allow for the flexibility women—and men—need to accommodate other life responsibilities. These changes make STEM fields more attractive to people with a variety of obligations—from raising children to caring for elderly parents.
Company policies also have changed. More businesses are willing to allow employees to job share, work flexible job hours or plug in from home, an option COVID-19 has illuminated to the nth degree.
These transformations in culture and business practices have led to the growth in STEM interest and job opportunities, Becerra relates.
And, increasing the number of STEM specialists in the United States is crucial, she says. “I think it’s an issue of national security and national competitiveness. For us to maintain both, we need to attract women and minorities PERIOD,” Becerra states.
“If you’re looking at the population and you’re just going to look at white males, there’s just not enough to support the needs of our country, to keep our competitiveness and to keep our national security,” she adds. “So, it’s not an issue of ‘Oh let’s try to be equal.’ It’s an issue of national competitiveness and national security.”
Many elements of children’s lives influence career options, including parental involvement, but Becerra points out the need for growth in three areas—good teachers, role models and women of color—entering STEM fields either as practitioners or teachers.
And although many people demonstrate a natural talent with computers, she says formal education is still critical to increasing an individual’s career opportunities. “They have to be able to have a strong education because we don’t know what jobs of the future will look like, but we know they will involve technology,” Becerra states.
Dr. Irma Becerra will be one of several experts discussing the challenges and opportunities for women in science, technology, engineering and math careers during the virtual forum “Women in the Workforce: A Journey in STEM,” beginning at 1 p.m. EDT on September 2. Register now.