Editor’s note: Opinions expressed by the author are his own.

Seven years ago I found myself contemplating the meaning of the acronym STEM. In an earlier career life, I was part of a team of editors, publishers, designers and marketers putting together a brand new magazine and website specifically intended to interest high school students, particularly girls, in pursuing science, technology, engineering and math education and careers.

At that time The Big Bang Theory was at its height and, well, I never did succeed at getting Mayim Bialik—one of the show’s stars, a Ph.D. in neuroscience and a noted advocate of STEM education—to appear on the magazine’s cover. (To their credit, the magazine’s current staff did get her to appear long after I moved to Texas to cover energy in 2014.)

More recently, I had a flashback to those days while attending Oil and Gas Investor’s 25 Influential Women in Energy luncheon on Feb. 12 (Full disclosure: Oil and Gas Investor magazine is part of Hart Energy.) M. Kathrine Banks, vice chancellor of engineering and national laboratories at Texas A&M University, spoke about the imperative need for young women to enter STEM fields while accepting the program’s Pinnacle Award.

Later in the ceremony, I listened intently as keynote speaker Susan Helms, a former NASA astronaut, described the science and energy behind a space shuttle mission. My own longing to travel to space aside, it was a fascinating reminder of the power of engineering to take our society to new heights.

I also had the opportunity that day to interview several of the energy honorees, many of whom brought up the need for inspiring a new generation of engineers to take the energy industry to new heights. Roger that.

That’s because I’m a firm believer that as the energy industry reaches new heights, so too, will our civilization. After all, technological advancements in oil and gas exploration and production have been among the main catalysts for making our lifestyles what they are today. In my opinion, they will continue to be for the foreseeable future, but that’s not to say the energy mix won’t develop to include other forms of energy. I’ve already argued that it will be all hands on deck to feed growing world demand.

But whether it is renewable energy development, low-carbon fossil fuels or, most likely, a mix of both, engineering know-how, not government muscle, will get us there.

The problem is we need a new generation of engineers. As Bank’s put it: the more new students who embrace STEM fields, the more we enhance creativity and diversity of perspectives. Roger that, too.

The Society of Women Engineers put out these numbers in September 2018. The good news is the number of freshman entering STEM-based degree programs is increasing. However, it remains a very small percentage of the overall college enrollment:

  • 2006: 18.4% (men); 3.5% (women)
  • 2014: 26.9% (men); 7.9% (women)

The same report said:

  • Over 32% of women switch out of STEM degree programs in college;
  • Only 30% of women who earn bachelor’s degrees in engineering are still working in engineering 20 years later; and
  • 30% of women who have left the engineering profession cite organizational climate as the reason.

Ouch, particularly about that last point.

So, why do we need women to fill the ranks of engineers in the United States? Pretty simple, the pool of candidate is larger. The U.S. Census reports that women make up 50.8% of the nation’s population. That’s a large potential of brain power to risk overlooking.

But for both women or men, the next generation up—the so-called “Gen Z” or “iGen”—are proving to be abundant and growing. A Forbes report says that people age 23 or younger are set to pass up the population of millennials sometime this year. Turns out, roughly one-third of the world’s population has been born after 2001. Stew on that fact for a while.

And many studies indicate they are proving to be more diverse and more socially conscious than their predecessors, including millennials. A recent survey by NES Global Talent, which places job candidates in energy roles across 28 countries, found that young people are likely attracted to renewable energy “due to its modern approach and environmentally conscious, ‘resonating’ with women early in their career.”

“The modernistic nature of renewables, as well as its strong advantage of being environmentally friendly, seems to be resonating with women who are in the infancy of their careers—the future leaders of the energy sector,” the study said.

But is that because that is the one side of the energy mix that they consistently hear about? It’s no secret that the oil and gas industry hasn’t been at the top of its collective game in showing the world the progress made in cutting emissions and increasing social responsibility. My colleague Joe Markman wrote about the messaging lessons learned from one of the most high-profile cases, the Dakota Access Pipeline, where, despite facts, the social media turned rhetoric decidedly against Energy Transfer Partners. I’m sure such events left an incomplete impression on those would-be petroleum engineers out there.

So how to, pardon the pun, stem the tide? To its credit, the fossil fuels industry, particularly among the majors and associations, has worked to interest young people, particularly women, in STEM education programs and careers.

A case can be made that efforts are starting to have some effect. The NES study says, “… despite the global concern around the lack of female representation in energy, the status quo is finally being challenged. More women are claiming to work in a technical role than ever before, contrary to popular belief. There is also a better representation of females in management, as well as a strong count in the younger age groups,” my colleague Leslie Haines reported. 

However, the bullet point above stating “30% of women who have left the engineering profession cite organizational climate as the reason” still bothers me. The NES study also reports that women still crave more mentoring and other kinds of support from their employers, such as flexible working conditions, verbal support and better training.

So, that’s where I believe energy companies can really turn the arrow upward on the trend. As Haines points out, the NES study shows the biggest challenges women in the study listed about the industry are  lack of suitable roles (31%), lack of mentors (20%), lack of flexible time (12%), none (11%), family (10%), and training (9%).

Those seem like workable issues to me.

What do you think? We want to hear your opinion. You can email us at editorial@hartenergy.com or tweet the author @LenVermillion.