Every three years, the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) conducts a survey of its member countries to examine the relative competitiveness of those countries in their education achievements. This survey, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) - measuring students’ ability to apply what they have learned in reading, mathematics, and science, is designed to assess whether students can use their knowledge in real-life situations and, thereby, creates a benchmarking system for any given country’s performance.
In 2012, the most recent study published ranked the achievements of 34 countries. Out of those 34, the U.S. ranked 27th in mathematics and 20th in science, up from 25th and 17th, respectively, in 2009. This, understandably, has caused concern from government and business leaders alike.
In 2011, thirteen government agencies – such as the National Science Foundation and the Department of Homeland Security, cumulatively set aside more than $3.44M from their R&D department budgets to put toward STEM investment. In 2013, President Obama pledged $3.1B for STEM education and in his 2015FY budget proposal has included an additional $170M in new funding for his comprehensive STEM Innovation proposal. This proposal aims to prepare 100,000 new K-12 STEM teachers by 2020, to increase the number of youth who have a meaningful STEM experience each year prior to completing high school, to graduate an additional 10M students with degrees in STEM fields by 2023, and to increase the participation number of underrepresented students and women within the STEM fields. These are lofty goals and, by itself, the government would struggle to meet these goals, if it manages to do so at all. The importance of this necessary accomplishment is not lost on the private sector. Specifically, within the coatings industry, companies like PPG and Axalta are stepping up, not only to support the economy, but to also support innovative success and future business development.
PPG Industries, with reported 2014 net sales of $15.4B, purposefully supports a plethora of items - charity work and STEM education among them. Though not always as strongly aligned to STEM as now, since its incorporation in 1951, education investment has always been an important part of what the PPG Industries Foundation does. Through programs such as their Community Global Engagement Program, active employee engagement, and innovative classroom grants, PPG is pushing the envelope with social involvement as it relates to educating tomorrow’s leaders within STEM fields.
What separates their STEM support from other forms of support, in particular, is their attention to “life cycle.” According to Sue Sloan, executive director, Corporate Global Social Responsibility of PPG Industries Foundation, “Our ability to focus on one priority area within kindergarten through higher education is unique. It allows us a wide spectrum of opportunities to provide support.”
She continued saying that not all of their grant writing or funding is exclusively available to any one group or level - i.e., the university, but is available through the life cycle. Through employee engagement and other social programs, PPG aims to get people excited about STEM education. From contractors, to undergraduate and graduate students, all the way up to Ph. D level.
“This focus, from different organizations and individuals, will filter into different areas. In coatings we will see it filter into corrosion engineering, color engineering, automotive collision repair, etc. We will see differentiation of where the industry focus is in terms of STEM,” stated Sloan.
Right in line with the Obama Administration’s push to increase minority and women’s involvement in STEM education, and paired with their grant writing to aid the increase of interest for students to study in STEM fields, PPG has a desire to become increasingly inclusive of minority groups and women.
“Diversity is an important area for business – different ideas, thoughts, and innovations. Everybody brings something to the table,” commented Sloan. “It’s a supply and demand deal here,” she continued. “There are more job opportunities in STEM, but not enough qualified applicants to meet the demand, so it is about increasing the pool for women.”
In addition to writing a multiplicity of grants, such as those involving the Girl Scouts, Sci-Girls, and colleges that support women in engineering programs, PPG works with the Carnegie Science Center to develop programs for schools in Pittsburg, PA and across the nation.
Commenting on the success of these programs, targeted to girls in k-12th grade, Sloan stated that from an HR point of view, “we are having some success in hiring more women and young girls, particularly in science labs and research centers.”
“The key is to engage young girls, women, and minorities, and to help them to understand that STEM is an everyday use, in baseball, in high school, what buses you want to catch, etc.,” said Sloan.
Axalta Coating Systems, likewise, sees real-world application as a key element. At a recent press conference announcing a partnership with Penn State University and Jeff Gordon, Charlie Shaver, chairman and CEO, Axalta, stated, “We lose a lot of our early engineers in school by their sophomore year because they don’t know what they are going to do with their education.” Continuing he said, “With the [Pocono 400] race coming up, we wanted to show people that the everyday world of engineering and business applies to a lot of things, including racing.”
To this, Gordon noted, “In racing, what science, engineering, and technology are bringing to motorsports is something that I’ve been a part of for a very long time, but as I’ve seen it ramp up over the last several years, it’s not just a part of it. It is essential. It is what separates our race car from our competition.”
Commenting on the partnership, Eric J. Barron, Penn State president, stated, “We’re thrilled to work with the industry leader Axalta. We look forward to a mutually beneficial partnership that will provide students with access to resources in STEM and business fields and cultivate relationships with professionals who are equally passionate about their fields of study."
As of the 2014 school year, Penn State had a total of 95,973 students, a total undergraduate enrollment of 70,514, and a total College of Engineering undergraduate enrollment of 10,455 (~15% of total enrollment).
Being a new company, previously DuPont Performance Coatings - rebranded Axalta Coating Systems after its February 2013 acquisition by the Carlyle Group, Axalta has a need to create a brand image for itself and this partnership is one of the ways, according to Shaver, that they are accomplishing this.
“Axalta is not a well-known name; we are a new company. So, we wanted to put a fresh face with the company and state what we want to be about,” stated Shaver.
Recognizing the need for skilled engineers and the current shortage in supply, Axalta incorporates some of its own programs to encourage study in the STEM fields. Through their employee engagement program, they send volunteers into schools, high school and Jr. high, to try to spur interest on the part of the students to continue to study engineering.
Within college, Axalta seeks out freshman and sophomores to introduce them to things like motorsports, to show them examples of what they can do with their degrees.
“We do specific experiences around our facility just to show them what engineers and scientists do when they get out of school – real life, challenging problems,” stated Shaver.
Axalta offers a locally coordinated, but globally-involved, intern program to students during the year who show an interest in coatings, are creative and engaging, and show an ability to work well in teams, a factor that Sloan also focuses on at PPG. In her words, “Students who have gone through a STEM discipline in college are more prepared to think collaboratively, have strategic thinking skills, and possess good process-oriented skills.”
To be successful and contribute to a company’s bottom line, you need to be a team player.
“The world really solves problems in teams, it is not an individual contributor world. Being an engineer, they will always need to tap resources all around them to solve a problem,” Shaver stated. “Along the way, selfishly, we hope that some of [the interns] may come work for us.”
Bottom line, as Sloan stated, “STEM is an important driver for economic growth. It is a hot topic now because the need for that type of employee is across the board for that industry. Technological advancements and innovation are extremely important to corporate growth. Science and math are critical for development. There is a trend for a reason; this is how the industry will be able to grow.”
Also noting the importance of STEM fields in business growth, Shaver stated, “In my career, this being my 5th time as a chairman or CEO of a company, I’ve found that you need to surround yourself with the best and brightest. Recruit globally. You’ve got to, because that is going to be your competitive advantage. Your coatings don’t get better by themselves and you don’t find more customers showing up at your door on their own. It is your people who do that.”
Recognizing this critical need for skilled employees, not only for their respective company’s growth, but also for the health of the economy as a whole, companies like PPG and Axalta - in addition to the government - have taken it upon themselves to serve as incubators to find and supply the STEM employees vital for tomorrow’s future.