Submitted by Nancy Mwirotsi, founder and executive director, Pi515

It feels like there’s a growing gap between our state’s youths and long-term career security and opportunity. This gap jeopardizes our ability to develop a future-ready workforce. As a community, we need to start having collective conversations that allow us to bridge this gap. We must work together to narrow the substantive gaps in quality of life and economic prospects between Iowans of all backgrounds.

The digital divide, or the longtime gap between those with access to digital tools and those without, is one such glaring barrier. As of last year, according to the Pew Research Center, 63% of Black adults say that not having access to high-speed internet creates significant disadvantages. This lack of connectivity can severely restrict an entire generation’s digital skills growth, an obstacle made even more apparent by the pandemic. Constant debates over remote learning often neglected to highlight entire groups’ lack of reliable online capabilities.

The pandemic exposed these disparities in a major way, demonstrating the importance of encouraging historically disadvantaged youths to explore meaningful career opportunities in STEM and the ever-growing digitized economy. By doing so, our young people can invent fulfilling opportunities and alter the trajectories of their lives in astonishing ways.

It’s impossible to overstate how important learning these skills can be. After all, the median wage for technology workers in Iowa is nearly 80% higher than those for all other occupations in the state, a figure that has grown significantly in recent years. These trends will continue to hold, given the widespread interest among small businesses to adopt new technologies following the worst of the pandemic. According to an Iowa Economic Development Authority survey, more than half of our small businesses plan to use more digital tools, even after the pandemic ends.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM jobs are projected to grow an additional 11% from 2020 to 2030. It’s critically important that students from all backgrounds can access a wide variety of opportunities so we can produce the significant uptick in demand for highly skilled, capable STEM workers.

Our demand for technologically literate workers has only one place to go: up. At Pi515, as we continue to expand our mission and engage with employers around our community, we continue to hear this need. This is a team effort. Constructive partnerships between our policymakers and all stakeholders determined to see an environment of innovation and success for our youths are required.

We as Iowans should take this forecast into account and do our best to make sure that our economy can support young people’s passions, talents and enthusiasm. In a state built on innovation and improving the lives of others, what can be more important than this? The opportunity to empower underserved groups to help others is in front of us today.

Now is the time to shape policies and ideas that will strengthen our technology sector’s ability to innovate on the global stage. The demand for workers fluent in technological concepts is growing, and we must work to fill it. The ensuing domino effect of curtailing innovation would be significant in Iowa and across the nation, as small businesses struggle to compete and bright young students lose sight of their lifelong potential in STEM fields.

The Urban Institute recently observed that as the world continues its digital transition, disruptions in STEM education now will be felt tenfold in the future. By interrupting the pipeline for interested students, we’re setting ourselves up for failure as our workforce ages. Even more concerning, bills without our future in mind send the wrong message for women dreaming to pursue fulfilling and exciting careers in STEM.

Historically, Iowa lags other states in terms of female employment in STEM. That’s why it’s more important than ever to bolster that representation. Iowans have worked to promote opportunities and growth for each other, and we should continue to protect innovation that will help attract and retain the jobs in Iowa for the next generation.

If we want our children to achieve greater economic independence and opportunity than we were presented, we cannot stymie our own innovation. While our state’s path to this future is not always clear, it must include the technological prowess that has made Iowa a beacon for those in need. We must ensure our representatives in the state and Washington are legislating in this spirit as well.