The following post was originally published in The Hill

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy laid out an ambitious goal for our nation – to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In doing so, he inspired a new generation and helped ensure U.S. global leadership in technology for years to come.

Today, we have an earthbound, but no less important, challenge. We face a massive skills gap — by 2018, our nation will have 1.8 million unfilled jobs requiring technical skills. Our nation’s business community is uniting to address the challenge.

We need to make sure that students of all backgrounds have the skills and opportunities to pursue a career in STEM– Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. This requires a national strategy, a chief component of which is STEM mentoring by STEM professionals.

Why mentoring? Because students won’t do what they can’t see. It’s one thing to teach math and science in the classroom. It’s another thing to build, explore, and engage the incredible world of science and technology that is transforming our society in real-time. Hands-on learning is the way to get a diverse group of students excited about STEM.

STEM mentors at Cisco
Participants with Techbridge Girls visit Cisco’s San Jose, California headquarters during a STEM mentoring event in February, 2015.

Cisco – as a founding member of US2020 – has pledged that 20 percent of our U.S. workforce will participate in STEM mentoring by the year 2020. Over the course of the past two years, we have engaged over 2,500 U.S. employee volunteers who have spent 28,000 hours working with students.

The results have been amazing for students and employees. And through a combination of data-driven analysis and anecdotal stories, we have developed 6 keys to engage and energize our executives and employees, to drive STEM mentoring.

1. Make mentoring accessible. If you ask your employees to volunteer at a local school or community-based program, a handful of dedicated individuals will engage. On the other hand, if you bring local students to your facility, and provide volunteers with a sensible agenda and curriculum, the results will be tremendous.  More importantly, the students will experience a STEM workplace first-hand and you will help build a culture of engagement, where employees mentor again and again and again.

2. Measure and report impact. The last thing you want is for employees to leave a STEM mentoring engagement without understanding the difference they’ve made.  So we’ve made it a practice to survey the students who go through our programs, first when they come in and, later, after they leave. In a recent survey, we asked students, “Do you know what it takes to get a job in STEM?”  The initial response was very strong, with over 50 percent indicating agreement.

But when asked again after the curriculum was completed, the numbers jumped sky-high — 90 percent indicated agreement. These types of engagement numbers inspire students and employees alike.

3. Tug at the heartstrings and create an emotional connection. Employees will volunteer for a variety of reasons, but we find that sharing stories of engagement – both in terms of students and of mentors makes an enormous difference.

“The experience makes me a better father,” one employee told us after he’d spent a few hours connecting with high school students about the possibilities of a career in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — at a company-sponsored event. He’s one of 82 percent of employees who said they find it personally rewarding to mentor, and 73 percent who said it made them proud to work for our company.

4. Engage senior executives. In any company, it is crucial to find executive sponsors who support the mission.  This is important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that most mentoring programs occur during the workday. For the last major event we held at Cisco, our executive sponsors were the global head of sales, who has now been named the CEO, and the Chief Financial Officer. This sends a very clear signal that mentoring is a business priority, in addition to being the right thing to do.

5. Connect it to your business.  As we developed our mentoring curriculum, we linked it to our business priorities. When we engage students, we have a strong focus on engineering, and lay out a skills challenge related to developing new ideas associated with the Internet of Everything. This helps generate excitement, expertise, and leads to more fulfilling engagements for students and employees alike. Each company that engages in STEM mentoring should find their own niche and connection to their business.

6. Partner with effective community organizations. We engage with amazing organizations like the Girl Scouts, Junior Achievement and US FIRST Robotics. They help connect us with local schools and school districts, and are instrumental in bringing students to our campuses. Many companies don’t have dedicated staff to drive STEM mentoring, so connecting with the right organizations in the local community is absolutely critical.

STEM mentoring isn’t a panacea. It won’t solve the skills gap crisis by itself, and it certainly won’t do it overnight.  But it is a critical piece of a larger STEM strategy that we must embrace. This time it’s not about going to the moon.  In some ways, it’s about something more – opening the eyes of millions of young students to a universe of incredible opportunities.

Kirsten Weeks was is a featured speaker at the White House STEM Mentoring Symposium held in Washington, DC, on July 23, 2015.


Kirsten Weeks

Senior Manager for Community Relations

Global Marketing and Corporate Communications