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Talent Strategy | 7 minute read

How a kids science kit in school created NASA’s talent pipeline

October 18, 2021

This blog was originally posted to LinkedIn. You can find the post here.

Between shopping for school supplies and space travel making headlines with the likes of Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, it got me thinking about my dad and the 1969 moon landing. While most of us have only heard about it, my dad lived it – a generation inspired by the small gesture of a science kit. 

A decade before the first moon landing, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a competition to achieve superior spaceflight capability. During the US’s multiple failures to land in the 1950s, President Eisenhower made a pivotal decision to invest in the future by sending a science kit to every school in the US. He knew that if the US was going to close the gap and surpass the Soviet Union in the space race, he needed a steady talent supply that reached far past his time in office. The goal was simple: get as many young Americans interested in math and science as possible. This decision, among many others progressing science at the time, led to the 1969 moon landing. What came next were years of innovation in math, science and technology.  

I’ll never forget my dad’s eyes lighting up every time he told this story about the science kit, remembering the impact of the teacher’s words: “This is from the President.” In fact, it inspired my father to pursue his own career in science. In essence, this is an example of how President Eisenhower built an early education talent pipeline. I think it's more important than ever to rebuild that pipeline and face down the challenges of our time by investing in our future.  

In this blog post, I will explore the challenges our education pipeline faces today and how we can overcome them to inspire future generations of skilled talent to come.  

Addressing the skills shortage

Today’s challenges won’t be solved with today’s talent. More than half (58%) of the workforce needs new skills to accomplish their jobs, according to research from Gartner. This talent gap continues to widen in tech and other specialized industries – to the point that the US could lose more than $160 billion in annual revenue by 2030.  

This isn’t just a US issue, either. Globally, talent shortages reached as high as 54% in 2019 – almost double what it was 10 years prior. There’s no quick fix to this shortage of skilled workers. We must all approach work differently, in a more strategic and humane way to see change. And it starts as early as grade school to make this a reality.

Creating equal education opportunities for kids

To build a healthy early talent pipeline, companies have a moral obligation for children to receive equal education opportunities. It shouldn’t be about competing for a talent pool or winning a “war on talent,” but rather, enabling early minds to reach their fullest potential and skill level. That’s how we’ll see true innovation happen. Our current system is riddled with inequality – and the COVID-19 pandemic magnified many persisting inequities, including:

  • The US Census Bureau Household Pulse survey reports Black and Hispanic households are three to four percentage points less likely than white households to have reliable access to devices, and three to six percentage points less likely to have reliable access to the internet.
  • Data shows low-income students dropped online math coursework participation by 16% vs just 2% from high-income students when compared with participation before the pandemic.
  • For high school, Ds and Fs increased by 8.7% in the fall compared to the same time last year, with greater increases among Black (23.2%) and Latino (24.9%) students. This illustrates the slippery slope inequity will continue to garner, leading to lowered graduation rates and lack of access to higher education.

Closing the gap requires everyone taking collective responsibility for ushering positive change. It starts with you.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR)

Call it corporate social responsibility (CSR) or the greater good – the fact remains that the betterment of society comes from empowering the next generation. While most employers are focused on the here and now, prioritizing strategic changes today will build a pipeline and ultimately drive skilled workers to your industry over the long term.  

You can do your part to accelerate and build a talent pipeline with intentional daily work and action on the following:

  • Help to remove barriers around education accessibility. This shows your commitment and investment to a better future. (More on this later.)
  • Have conversations around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB). These can often feel like uncomfortable conversations, but without acknowledging the gender and race disparity, we’ll never be able to address it.
  • Pre-skill, skill and upskill continuously. If employees aren’t at the skill level necessary to do their jobs, how can we expect children to be in the next 10 years? We must be vigilant to give children the tools they need to flourish in the workforce.

The new space race: Ways to make a difference

While we may not have direct access to the president, we can start making a positive impact from a grassroots perspective in our communities. A lot of small wins add up to big victories that society will benefit from with a skilled and capable workforce inspired to innovate.

This is what building an early education pipeline looks like:

Understand local laws and be politically engaged. The way US education is funded can widen disparities. Utilizing property tax value to fund schools will always lead to disproportionate funding when it comes to high-poverty school districts– and this is only one example. Having knowledge of our respective political systems helps us remove barriers and support infrastructure for underrepresented students. It’s the foundation for donating to causes or voting for policies come election time.

How to apply this: Volunteer for your next election with call-ins that encourage others to vote.

Talk to local schools in your area. Consider collaborating on an internship or mentoring program designed to spark interest in children about your industry. Exposing them to skills without learning barriers will fuel their growth and your industry in the coming years.

How to apply this: Talk to school staff about hosting a yearly mentorship program where students can be sponsored by you to learn practical skills for an industry trade one day a month.  

Donate to causes that help kids. Classrooms desperately need supplies and resources. Reach out to local schools in your area to find out how you can help through an after-school program or early education events.  

How to apply this: Reach out to a local school during career day to host a workshop or teach kids about your industry.

Sponsor a scholarship. Help underprivileged children follow their dreams by providing a scholarship.

How to apply this: Figure out which students you want to support, and then determine the funding and taxes in order to raise enough money to help. You can start small and grow it every year.  

Pool resources with other companies. We do more when we come together to make big change. Partnering with local businesses can help everyone make a bigger splash and financial contribution that goes directly back to helping kids. See what city-wide committees and charitable initiatives are happening in your area – asking employees is a great place to start.  

How to apply this: At WilsonHCG, a women’s employee belonging group partnered with a local charity to help fund clothing for women during job interviews. Start with your employees and make outreach from there to see what other organizations are willing to partner with you.   

Small gestures make a big impact

I think about how these skill gaps will impact the next generation all the time – as my son is almost the same age as my dad when his school first received a science kit. The gap is fundamentally a human issue, and not a workforce one. The Eisenhower Foundation is still running today with programs and events to inspire children to continue learning.  

We have a collective moral obligation to inspire kids and give them a future they can believe in. While it may not be in the form of a science kit, take time to think about how you can contribute to the greater good in the years to come. You’d be surprised how a small gesture of goodwill can result in a big impact over time. You may even be over the moon with your results.

About Gillisa Pope

Gillisa Pope is a senior member of WilsonHCG’s innovation team. As director of sourcing strategy, she melds creative ideas, analytics and best practices to design and action impactful sourcing solutions. An expert in employment branding, Gillisa is also part of the team that produces WilsonHCG’s award-winning annual Fortune 500 employment brand report. She has over 15 years of experience in designing and building talent attraction strategies for some of the world’s most admired brands.