Op-Ed: NextFlex Helps Silicon Valley Students Step into STEM

The very survival of manufacturing depends on more students becoming workers in STEM-related careers. More specifically, the future needs an increase of students wanting to work in STEM in order to combat the severe outreach and recruitment challenges the manufacturing industry currently faces.

If the manufacturing industry does not address this issue, research, development and all other programs would be as a waste of time because there would be no one to run them.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in the STEM-related fields are expected to grow by 10.8 percent between 2016 and 2026. As STEM covers a wide range of professional careers, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has zeroed in on the 36.7 percent of people choosing a career within the engineering industry—which is over one-fourth of all STEM-related occupations.

Accordingly, Generation Z will need to further develop its education in STEM in order to keep up with our highly technological and progressive society.

This is where NextFlex, the Silicon Valley based public-private partnership and America’s leading Flexible Hybrid Electronics (FHE) Manufacturing Institute, is stepping in to support the growth of STEM-based industries. NextFlex is working to directly address this topic of increasing students’ involvement in STEM-related fields by creating a workforce development program, called FlexFactor.

The successful creation of the future manufacturing workforce faces several hurdles as talent progresses from school to higher education and on through to the labor market. FlexFactor is changing perceptions about what modern manufacturing is all about, and, in the process, opening young minds to the possibilities of what a future career in manufacturing might be for them some day.

FlexFactor is a four-week project-based learning program aimed at connecting students and schools with the advanced manufacturing sector while simultaneously addressing the pervasive outreach and recruitment challenges faced by this industry.

Moreover, the program introduces its students to the latest advanced technologies, valuable entrepreneurship skills, and a career pathway that ultimately leads to the engineering and manufacturing industry.

Through FlexFactor, mentors help prepare students for the future of working in STEM by challenging its participants to strategize in teams to identify a real-world problem, conceptualize an advanced hardware solution, and build a business model around it.

FlexFactor taps into the potential of its participants whose circumstances sometimes have isolated them from the experiences, networks, pathways, and opportunities that so frequently determine future economic success and social mobility.

The talent pipeline becomes diversified, as FlexFactor helps bridge the ethnic and gender gaps that are sometimes seen in the math and science fields while also nudging the students, who previously hadn’t considered higher education or STEM-based careers, to muster the courage to realize their potential.

Last month, NextFlex co-hosted FlexFactor Finals: Silicon Valley, in partnership with Evergreen Valley College. During the Finals, top student teams from across Silicon Valley delivered a hardware device “pitch” on their stated problem area, their solution for that problem, and a business model to a panel of industry experts.

One campaign that caught attention was from Leland High School, where the team used FHE to help solve a local environmental problem—namely how to help Palo Alto’s endangered burrowing owls. This event represented the anniversary of FlexFactor’s third year since its launch, having achieved a milestone of graduating over 2,500 middle school and high school students throughout Santa Clara County from the FlexFactor program.

At the Final Pitches, we saw empowered and motivated students complete the four weeks of FlexFactor as architects of their futures, and knowledgeable about the education pathways that will lead them there. The magic of FlexFactor, which we see time and again, is that it simplifies the engagement of a variety of partners in the education and workforce development process, allowing future-thinking companies, K-12 school districts, institutes of higher education, government entities, and nonprofits to co-create the technology sector talent pipeline as a functional ecosystem.

In each of the 2,500 students who’ve completed FlexFactor in Silicon Valley over the last three years, we’ve seen transformation in every single one of them.

This grassroots approach to empowering young minds to take charge of their own futures can have lasting impact for each student, certainly, but it also adds up to a significant change in the way stakeholders can work together for the benefit of the ecosystem, here and across the nation.

Brynt Parmeter is the director of workforce development, education and training at NextFlex. Emily McGrath is NextFlex’s deputy director of workforce development, education and training. Opinions in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].

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