The third in a series of posts by PepsiCo’s Tim Ingmire, exploring ways to unlock STEM potential in the UK
As the EngineeringUK report rightly noted, “The single biggest threat to success lies with education: to meet demand, we need enough young people to study STEM subjects at schools and colleges.”
My colleagues and I at PepsiCo R&D believe we’re off to a strong start here in the UK, but we still have more work to do in our quest to attract and retain fully rounded STEM candidates.
To be sure, the highly technical “hard” STEM skills relevant for tomorrow’s new economy are not easily acquired. And, at PepsiCo, we screen carefully to acquire skilled candidates.
But we’re equally keen to attract STEM candidates who understand that technical proficiency in their field is merely “table stakes.” Today’s STEM students must understand that, once on the job, they must “transcend the test” and transform their academic skills into actual products and services others are willing to pay for. And to accomplish this, STEM students must master the “soft skills” too often unassociated with success in STEM professions. And we’re determined to help them—and their teachers—accomplish this.
Thus we’re working with teachers and schools and students themselves to close gap between the often binary worlds of “school” and “work,” to make students’ transition from classroom to career seamless.
To be successful, however, our institutions have some un-learning to do.
In the past, schools concerned themselves with skills impartation. Teachers transferred learning to receptive students in a one-way intellectual transaction.
But in the workplace, students are called upon—often for the first time, and often on the first day—to lead information transactions. The roles are reversed. The new STEM employee has to “educate” (aka “sell”) peers and supervisors about the salience of his or her ideas and innovations.
Thus the transition between school and the workplace is, for many, no easy feat. And while some companies offer transitional guidance for their new hires; just as many do not. The result is a “sink or swim” career environment where—despite entering the workplace with equal technical credentials—some STEM employees flourish and others stall.
At PepsiCo R&D, we’re determined to fix this problem. And one of the best ways to accomplish this, we have discovered, is to help young people understand the distinction between invention and innovation.
Across all industries, executives are looking for innovators—not simply inventors. The distinction may sound minor, but it’s not.
The myth of the inventor is very alluring to STEM professionals. It’s the Einstein myth, the Silicon Valley myth, the Nobel-prizewinner myth, the “mad genius” in the lab or the garage myth.
To be sure, these folks exist, but they are more the exception than the rule. Most of our biggest breakthroughs don’t come from one thinker; they come from teams—and usually these teams are housed inside big organizations. Whereas invention is often pegged to inspiration, innovation is a process.
It takes discipline, rigor, and a determination to attack a problem or opportunity methodically, from all angles. This evolution requires a shift from focusing on solving complex technical problems to defining and redefining the right problem before solving it.
It’s a transition from striving to develop solutions that are technologically complex to developing solutions that are easy for customers to use and adopt and stakeholders to articulate.
And instead of depending on others to sell (market) their solutions, a STEM -proficient professional must be able to create stakeholder momentum to commercialize ideas.
Another focus area for us is to focus on experiential learning that can convert academic knowledge into value creation in the workplace.
To facilitate this conversion process, here in the UK PepsiCo is forging stronger relationships with teachers and schools, and likewise sponsoring STEM events at our R&D facilities to offer young people a firsthand look at how STEM translates from the classroom to the workplace.
At PepsiCo, we’re determined to create opportunities at our R&D facilities for students to participate in hands-on activities designed to bridge the gap between academic theory and commercial action. We’re keen to help young people understand the discrete scientific steps and critical employability skills (such as leadership and shepherding an idea through complex matrix structures) that propel a product from drawing board to commercialization and final purchase.
Some of our recent efforts include:
- Inviting students from leading UK universities to spend one year embedded in our project teams, where they help drive technical innovation;
- Attending UK industry’s STEM events such as Big Bang and TeenTech;
- Supporting certain universities in attracting young STEM talent;
- Engaging with local secondary schools on both hard technical and soft skills at a range of age levels
As someone who has spent over 25 years in a STEM profession, I am optimistic about the progress we’ve made and the potential we share for future success. I am also deeply heartened by all the attention the STEM challenge has generated, thus creating tremendous opportunity for teachers, students and employers.
I am convinced that my own company’s efforts to attract emerging STEM talent, increase our collaboration with academic and governmental organizations, and help next-generation STEM employees who come to work at PepsiCo learn the “soft skills” necessary to thrive in the modern workplace will yield handsome dividends for all.