Investing in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students is especially critical for healthcare companies: These are the minds that will create the next breakthrough inventions that help people live not just longer – but better.

And it’s not just Ph.Ds. and inventors that we need. We also need a strong talent pipeline of people with the technical skills necessary to staff labs, build prototypes, write code and fill many, many other STEM-related jobs. Behind every healthcare inventor is a team full of people with a variety of scientific skill sets.

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I am the head of quality, regulatory and engineering services at Abbott, a Chicago-based healthcare company. I also represent an extreme minority in the field of engineering today: As an African-American, female engineer, I’m 10 times more rare than a woman in Congress.

The good news is that there is wide support for bills like The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act that recognize the need for modern STEM education aligned with the needs of technologically advanced companies. This bill would reauthorize the Perkins Act, last reauthorized in 2006 – when the iPhone was still just an idea and Facebook a novelty. Since then, the technology world has evolved. And so this reauthorization represents an important opportunity to make sure our investment in career and technological programs responds to the needs in today’s job market.  

Our youth have the talent, but we still are struggling to get key demographic groups like young women and minorities to sign up for and stay with STEM classes and extracurricular programs. I believe in the value of diversity; if there aren’t many people like you in your chosen field, you have the opportunity to offer a new perspective. However, we can’t pretend that women and minorities don’t face extra systemic barriers that may discourage them from pursuing these career paths.

One way to address that issue is reaching students early, in high school and early college.

At Abbott, we work with interns as young as 15 years old. We demystify the worlds of engineering and research and development for them, so they know exactly what they’re pursuing when they select that engineering, science or math degree in college. Ninety-five percent of our high school interns go on to study a STEM field. Two-thirds of them are also young women, by the way – and more than half are minorities. As a product of inner-city Dallas schools, I know your ZIP code doesn’t have to determine your destination. A high school internship changed my career trajectory for good and now I’m dedicated to doing the same for young people today.

But the bottom line here is: No one can do it alone. Corporations can’t single-handedly eliminate the skills gap that exists in STEM. It takes a partnership between the private sector, parents, schools and government to have a sustainable impact.

The days left on the legislative calendar in 2016 are dwindling, but passing the Perkins Act reauthorization should be a bipartisan priority, just as it was in 2006 when it passed almost unanimously. Let’s all do our part to find and encourage the scientists, engineers and inventors of tomorrow.

Corlis Murray is Abbott’s head of quality, regulatory and engineering services.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.