Closing the Distance:  Helping Young People Access STEM careers in the Innovation Economy

It’s a divide that United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley strives to close every day: Boston’s most underserved communities sit a few miles away from the city’s fastest-growing innovation business districts. Low-income workers are one high-quality training or post-secondary program away from some of the best-paying entry level jobs in Massachusetts. Young people are losing interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) dramatically during the middle school years, yet they are a convenient after-school field trip away from some of the most innovative local companies in the world that could show them exciting possibilities in STEM careers.

Despite the proximity of these needs and resources, local employers are starved to fill STEM occupations with a trained and diverse workforce. Sectors with some of the fastest-growing needs for STEM occupations are not where you might expect them. United Way, for example, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for community issues such as early education and preventing homelessness, recently launched a ground-breaking partnership with Salesforce around a next-generation employee giving technology platform that is powered by artificial intelligence.  

The Commonwealth Corporation reports that over 20% of manufacturing jobs in Massachusetts have become STEM jobs. One in seven post-secondary teaching jobs is a STEM job. Business services, financial services, and retailers employ more than 70,000 workers in STEM occupations. STEM jobs are expected to account for 25% of the total employment growth over the next 10 years.

“We must aim to create those connections between these two spectrums in our City and provide our young people with the skills necessary to be impossible to ignore, making them significant contributors to Boston’s incredible innovation economy,” says David Delmar, founder of Resilient Coders, one of United Way’s strategic, community-based partners.

Greater Boston is in a unique position to make these connections and close these gaps. 

To highlight the growing need for STEM workers,and the ways they are working to meet that demand in their fields, we asked some of our corporate partners from different industries to weigh in.

How are you increasingly relying on STEM occupations for your core business?  

Massachusetts Electric Construction: “We are a 91-year-young, national electrical contractor that has worked on projects such as the Leonard Zakim Bridge and Gillette Stadium. We have always relied on those in the STEM field to build our work. Electricians use math in all they do, from bending pipe, sizing wire, calculating loads, and more. Our engineers use their STEM backgrounds in procurement, project controls, planning, analyzing, and assisting in the design of our projects. Staying abreast of the most current science and technologies is essential to building safe, quality work. Whether the project is the construction of a new hospital, power plant, highway, light-rail system or bridge to rehabbing an existing structure, those in the STEM field are the players getting the project completed.”

The Marr Companies: “As we progress into our 121st year in business, we are mindful that change is a constant. To remain a trusted provider of equipment and labor services in the New England construction industry, we need to stay on the cutting edge of progress.  All four of the Marr Companies rely heavily upon engineered custom designs for the products and services we deliver to our clients. The need for tech literacy is ever increasing. In all our business segments – steel erection, scaffolding, shoring, rigging and crane work – Marr laborers, foremen and project managers rely on STEM skills to perform their work. Working in the construction industry requires basic engineering and tech literacy, along with industry-specific training in programs designed to assist service providers.”

3M:At 3M, our vision is ‘Science Applied to Life,’ which for us means that we apply science in collaborative ways to improve lives daily.   Our STEM employees really help bring that vision to life! We employ thousands of scientists and researchers around the world — and invest heavily in research and development. That investment helps our people produce more than 3,000 patents each year and a steady stream of unique products for customers.”

What gaps are you seeing in the current workforce relative to STEM jobs and your industry or company?

Mass Electric: “We have found that the most significant gap is in the decreasing number of field (craft) personnel, which for MEC are electricians. People are not joining the trades. Reasons we have come across include the blue-collar perception of the profession and people not being aware of it as an option. However, electricians acquire their skills and knowledge both in the classroom and while on the job — making money right out of school, and often, more money than their managers with a college degree!”

Marr Companies:  “Our ‘unicorns’ are applicants with literacy in tech software who also possess the fundamentals of civil or building engineering and jobsite experience. Applicants with a lack of real-world knowledge and practical experience are a major concern. Understanding the construction process and what it takes to achieve the end result are paramount in the construction business.”

3M: “3M is working to increase student achievement in STEM and business curriculum, support post-secondary programs that attract, retain, and develop graduate students, and promote equity by driving access to quality education for all communities. We recognize that encouraging young people to study STEM is crucial to the future workforce. That’s why 3Mgives (3M’s social investment arm) supports initiatives that increase student interest in STEM and business to help build a diverse pipeline of future leaders.”

What advice would you give to young people who are looking for career opportunities in STEM?

Mass Electric: “Think outside the box and investigate any technical or apprenticeship program as an alternative to college or university. No matter what career path you choose, focus your energies on the STEM classes during school. The knowledge you gain will help you each and every day.”

Marr Companies:  “There are countless opportunities to use STEM education in the built environment. Consider a trade as there are countless career opportunities to explore.  Numerous individuals have made great careers and businesses working in the trades. It is something someone can be proud of.  STEM leaders will have a distinct advantage going forward. In the last 10 years or so, their impact has taken the industry forward by making the building process safer and more efficient.”

3M: “Go for it! 3M is helping to generate interest and passion in STEM and is helping students pursue careers in STEM. 3M partners with schools, universities and other community organizations around the globe to ensure students and teachers have the tools, resources and knowledge they need to succeed. It is through these interactions that we support the next generation of great leaders, thinkers and creators.”

United Way Brings Need and Opportunity Together

United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Boston After School and Beyond (BASB) set out a few years ago to help connect young people underrepresented and underserved in STEM exposure with potentially life-altering opportunities for their future. Together with the City of Boston, Boston Public Schools, and twelve community-based nonprofit organizations, United Way and BASB created BoSTEM. Working with local companies, BoSTEM’s goal is to present engaging STEM opportunities to 10,000 Boston middle school students by 2022. BoSTEM provides hands-on, high-quality learning opportunities that work alongside out-of-school time programs and with corporate volunteers, giving students a chance to apply STEM skills in exciting, real-world contexts.  

For more information about hosting a field trip for middle schoolers, contact Ilana Smith Bowen at or 617-624-8203.

Resilient Coders encourages the business community to play a role in helping to meet the STEM job demand. They do this by lobbying employers to hire graduates of programs like their Bootcamp, which trains individuals over 14 weeks to learn full stack software engineering, from javascript through React, Node, Mongo DB and Postgres. Their graduates go on to work as software engineers, for enterprises such as Wayfair, Accenture, DigitasLBI, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, as well as for startups like Wistia, Privy, Mavrck, and RStudio.  

United Way and BoSTEM are also working to create externships for educators at Boston Public Schools and out-of-school time programs. During these mini-training sessions, education and industry professionals work side-by-side to improve student learning, building school and system capacity by leveraging industry resources and skill sets in support of addressing innovation and opportunity gaps.

Externships can expose teachers to the skills and careers in demand in the 21st century workforce and equip them with information and a social network to design real-world problem-based and project-based tasks in their classrooms.

For more information about hosting an externship, contact Ilana Smith Bowen at

“By expanding training programs to help fill entry-level STEM occupations and focusing on encouraging more youth to pursue STEM careers, we can help build a diverse pipeline of future STEM workers to fill those jobs now and in the future,” said Karley Ausiello, Senior Vice President of Community Impact at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley.  “There are so many opportunities to make these connections and create learning experiences for students that will enable successful entry into a rapidly changing world.”