San Diego Business Journal

Now is Time to Inspire Gen Z for STEM Careers

By Joe Panetta Originally published February 25, 2016 at 3:13 p.m., updated February 25, 2016 at 3:13 p.m.
   

— In the business world—and especially in the life sciences industry—we spend a lot of time reading and thinking about how to make the “millennials”happy. We want the best and brightest new talent to join our organizations and make their mark, developing breakthrough medicines, life-changing technologies and creative strategies for growth.

Our emphasis on millennials is both worthy and necessary, as this is a critically important slice of the population. Millennials, also known as Generation Y, represent the largest segment of the workforce today. With the oldest in their mid-30s and the youngest starting college, these are the entrepreneurs, CEOs and software geniuses that will shape our economy for many decades to come.

But it’s time to be even more forward thinking. While there’s no doubt that we need to nurture our millennial workforce, our business community should be spending just as much energy cultivating tomorrow’s innovators—Generation Z.

This is especially true for San Diego’s life science companies.

An Economic Engine

What’s at stake? Our region’s economic well-being, for starters.

The life sciences sector is a major driver of the innovation economy in San Diego. We’re home to more than 1,100 life sciences companies and 80-plus research institutes, employing more than 34,000 people.

Not only that, but San Diego’s life sciences employees earn, on average, more than $134,000 annually—more than any other traded cluster in San Diego County, according to the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. These are really good jobs with really good salaries, much of which ends up supporting our real estate markets, schools and local businesses.

The life science industry is poised for even more growth, in San Diego and nationally. Between 2010 and 2020, the U.S. Department of Education projects a 62 percent increase in jobs for biomedical engineers and a 32 percent increase in demand for medical scientists. Double-digit growth also is forecast for software developers and computer system analysts, which increasingly work in the science and health care space (just look at the convergence of genomics and big data).

Yet today, far too few American students pursue expertise in fields related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The U.S. government has made STEM education a priority in recent years, but government initiatives aren’t enough.

As an industry and as individuals in the business community, we need to take leadership to ensure that our home-grown Generation Z is equipped for the rewarding jobs of tomorrow. We need to engage with our future talent pool, instilling joy for STEM in today’s girls and boys so they’ll consider a career in science and engineering.

Science and Engineering Festival

This is the mission of the San Diego Festival of Science and Engineering, a 10-day countywide event produced by the Biocom Institute that kicks off March 5 in Petco Park. The festival includes interactive demonstrations, hands-on activities and dynamic speakers to engage kids and families in all that encompasses STEM.

I encourage you, as a member of San Diego’s business community, to do your part by participating in and supporting San Diego Festival of Science and Engineering. Bring your kids, nephews and nieces. Find out how your company can be a part of the festivities next year; it’s an experience you won’t regret.

It’s everyone’s job—not just teachers—to spark a sustained level of excitement for science and engineering into the minds of young people. Let’s focus on Generation Z.

Joe Panetta is president and CEO of Biocom, the association representing the Southern California life science community.