Education and career counseling for young students has come full circle. For decades, primary schools pushed students to pursue degrees aimed toward stable, 9-to-5 jobs. Carving out a steady career became a benchmark of success for young students, while vocational trade work became a back-up plan.

Flash forward to today and “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is a near ubiquitous part of school curriculum and extra-curricular activities. It’s all part of the effort to get kids excited about jobs and professions we need to fill in order to build the future. It’s no secret we need to develop more STEM talent, and that means doing a better job fostering inclusive learning opportunities.

We’ve known about the shortage of skilled trades workers – often schooled in STEM fields – for years, but haven’t focused enough on engaging young girls, for example. A recent report found women held less than 25 percent of all STEM jobs in the United States in 2015, the last year studied. Why? A lack of exposure and encouragement to explore the diverse career possibilities.

In 1995, I joined DENSO as a materials engineer, working on the development of new materials for use in automotive applications with a focus on light-weighting and unique properties tailored to the product and processing needs. I was one of the few women in my field, essentially blazing my own trail. Fast forward 20 years, and we’ve made significant strides. Young girls today have an opportunity to make a difference, role models to look up to, and – most importantly – careers in need of talented individuals.

According to a recent Deloitte-Manufacturing Institute report, about 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled by 2025. And about two million of those jobs don’t yet have suitably-skilled candidates. If Michigan (and the United States from a larger perspective) wants to stay competitive in a more technology and skill-driven landscape, it needs to not only become more inclusive, but embrace diversity.

Working with schools and partners to promote STEM inclusivity at a young age is one way companies can develop the talent that will lead them into the future. For example, organizations like FIRST Robotics give students hands-on robotics experience in a fun, yet competitive setting (and it’s something DENSO and I are passionate about, mentoring the next generation).  I have had the wonderful experience of watching the team I help mentor, FRC 5436 Cyber Cats, grow in numbers throughout their 4 years of existence.  In particular, we’ve seen our female student ratio grow from 2/11 (15 percent) to 11/36 (30 percent).  While many join with an intention to work on the business facet of the team, we encourage them to explore the mechanical, electrical and programming aspects as well.  They never cease to amaze me with their energy and enthusiasm to learn.

This is just one of the countless examples of the slow but unmistakable shift in encouraging young women to think outside of the traditional fields perceived as pink or blue and to chase their dreams, whatever or wherever they may be. It’s imperative to recognize the opportunities we have to inspire young girls and women to thrive in fields so important to our future. STEM skills are essential for the future of America’s workforce and a gateway to growth opportunities. For the good of our companies, industries and society, we must find better ways to get more children involved earlier.

Denise Carlson is vice president in Material Engineering and Production Innovation for global automotive supplier DENSO in North America. She’s a passionate advocate for more intuitive and sustainable future mobility systems and plays a key role preparing DENSO’s production network to build them.

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