When it comes to the future of higher education, there’s no shortage of conversation and/or focus on the importance of STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math). While STEM learning is a hot topic in academic institutions, many companies are unaware that the pipeline of talent in STEM fields is drastically under-filled.

It is estimated that by 2020 there will be more jobs in tech than there are bodies to fill them. Somewhere between 1 million and 2.5 million jobs will go unfilled, most of them in the engineering and computer science fields. That’s a serious shortage.

This means companies will face more competition than ever before when it comes to recruiting STEM-focused candidates. From a recruiting standpoint, this is a wakeup call for both HR pros and senior leaders. Getting these potential job-seekers on the radar screen early and making a concerted effort to build relationships that will endure through the education process will hopefully lead them back in your direction when they’re ready to dive into a career.

What does that relationship-building look like? Smart companies of all sizes are getting involved and/or spearheading STEM-focused initiatives in their communities. They are connecting with young people in middle school and high school and encouraging an interest in STEM learning, and showing them real-life examples what a career in STEM might look like. They are sponsoring science and tech competitions; sponsoring Maker Fairs and robotics teams; and they are sending engineers, data analysts and scientists into schools to talk about what it is they do – all with a view toward exposing young people to STEM careers and inspiring them to want to know more.

Fostering exploration, developing relationships, and even mentoring young people can have a tremendous impact on a company’s recruiting process. Here are a few things to keep in mind that will help you redesign your recruiting to build a great STEM pipeline.

Build Relationships with Candidates Before They Are Job Hunting

When people think of partnerships with universities, they often think of attending career fairs and sending job postings; but that is just the beginning for most forward-thinking companies.

A well-structured internship or mentorship program goes a long way. These programs allow your employees to share their expertise, and you get to build your brand and story with potential recruits. In many cases, these programs result in a reduction of recruiting time, as you have a pool of candidates who you already know and have seen in action.

And those candidates often still have an open mind about where their career paths are heading. Naomi Catherine Gheorghe, a student at NYU, switched her major from speech pathology to computer science after an internship last summer exposed her to software.

“I was so used to one type of science, like biology or chemistry, but through the internship, I saw the software person was able to combine science that I was used to with computer science. This introduction to computer science showed me there was (sic) absolutely more aspects to science.”

That early introduction can make a big difference. Many talented STEM students like Gheorghe won’t reach the job market, or your HR department, because they’re already in the pipeline of the forward-thinking organization that helped them explore their interest in a particular field through an internship program.

Focus on Diversity: In Hiring and Brand Messaging

Like it or not, STEM fields have a reputation; engineering in particular has not historically been very diverse, with females and minorities largely underrepresented.

Though it’s slowly changing, our culture has unfortunately tended to reinforce those negative stereotypes from a young age, especially as it relates to girls ages 7 to 12, often discouraging them when it comes to math and science. You can dispel those preconceived notions by making sure your recruitment efforts are diverse, and then putting women and minorities in front of young audiences on a regular basis.

If you’re looking to attract the very best talent in engineering, computer science, and other STEM fields, embrace diversity initiatives internally, make sure your brand messaging articulates your stance on diversity, and make sure that women and minorities know they are welcome and that opportunities are abound.

Be Innovative: Create Your Own Talent Pipeline

Etsy tackled the gender diversity challenge during the past few years by making a concerted effort to hire and support female engineers. They didn’t just “talk the talk,” they dove in innovatively, creating their own pipeline called, “Etsy Hacker Grants.” The program was a three-month hacker school for men and women that had gender distribution as a key metric. The grant program included scholarships that were needs-based, so if a candidate passed the application process, they were guaranteed a spot regardless of their financial situation. The results were amazing. In one year, Etsy increased the number of female engineers on their team by 500 percent.

This way of thinking and these creative approaches on the part of both recruiting pros and senior leaders can be applied to nearly any niche group in STEM industries. The key tenets of building relationships often and early, educating and mentoring, focusing on diversity internally and in your external brand messaging and storytelling, and creating your own innovative talent pipelines. These strategic activities can set you on the path to not only attracting the best and brightest talent, but also developing a reputation for STEM commitment and leadership in your community and beyond.

photo credit: FLLFinalCE_2014_15_Munich_005 via photopin (license)

A version of this post was first published on MillennialCEO on 1/5/16

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