SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Gretchen Vandawalker heard the assignment and could barely contain herself.
The task: Design the layout for a smartphone app that would be useful to high school students containing information including class schedules, assignments, grade-point averages, directions to classrooms and more.
The Wells High School freshman literally jumped at the chance, seizing the marker and taking over the flip chart, sketching out her idea for the app’s homepage — complete with a mascot, a big-eyed, manga-style avatar in the upper right-hand corner. Her teammates, Wells freshman Sarah Berger and Deering High School senior Fredette Baramburiye, took turns adding their ideas, modifying the design and throwing around different features the app should have.
Matthew Smith, a software engineer at Unum, coached them along, reminding them about requirements for the app, talking about concepts such as usability and design.
About two dozen high school students sat around a big room at Unum working on the same task with energy. In a nearby room, another 25 or so students worked on a server virtualization exercise with equal enthusiasm.
Tuesday night was Tech Night at Unum, an effort by the company to encourage high school students to begin thinking about careers in science, technology engineering and math, often called the STEM fields. Fifty high school students from Deering, Portland High, Cape Elizabeth, Wells, Westbrook, Westbrook Vocational School, Casco Bay High School and Thornton Academy attended. A similar event was planned for college students Wednesday night.
For Vandawalker, an artist, the evening was a chance to better understand the technology she uses to create much of her art and to meet more students with similar interests. Berger, a self-described “science person,” wanted to learn more about a career in computer security. And Baramburiye, who’s considering college options, was thinking about going into accounting though she now is thinking of other options after Tech Night and the exposure to the different computer science careers.
“I’m thinking of changing my mind; that was interesting to me,” she said.
One thing that became clear, said Baramburiye, is that there are jobs out there for people with information technology skills.
That’s one of the goals, said Jim Smith, vice president of shared services at Unum. The company has been running the events since 2009 in locations where it has operations including South Portland, Chattanooga, Tenn., Columbia, S.C., and Worcester, Mass. Unum leaders, in speaking with school officials in various locations, realized that most students and their parents had no idea what the company did or what sort of career opportunities exist there, said Smith.
In Maine, he noted, there are STEM job opportunities at places such as Unum, Wright Express, IDEXX Laboratories and others. There are students who can study in fields aimed at those opportunities at a number of colleges here as well, Smith said.
“We felt an obligation to put them all together,” he said.
There’s a benefit to Unum, as well, noted Smith, as he pointed wryly to his head of gray hair.
“The baby boomers are going to be retiring,” he said.
An issue that’s gotten a lot of attention recently has been the skills gap — the chasm between the jobs that are open or will be open and the lack of people with the qualifications and know-how to fill them. That includes trades such as machinists and high-tech positions such as those Unum will be looking to fill.
In recent interviews, corporate leaders at top Maine tech companies have said they expect to create between 500 and 700 new IT jobs over the next five years. But the University of Maine system will only produce 250 IT graduates over that time period.
Unum’s Tech Night is one way of addressing that gap, suggested Linda Roth, a career counselor at Thornton Academy in Saco.
“It’s helping kids expand their thinking around career paths,” she said.
Students need to look at getting into jobs where they’ll actually find work here in Maine, she added.
The evening started sort of like a career fair but focused mainly on different careers at Unum. Students could visit different tables to talk with Unum professionals in areas such as networking, project management, server engineering, infrastructure architecture and others. There was even a “computing antiques” table featuring an old typewriter, punch cards, a Commodore computer and some old “Zork” games.
At one table, Dan Allen of Limerick, a developer in Unum’s data warehouse, had a passel of teenage boys hanging on his every word as he talked about standardizing data and the usefulness of Google analytics.
Allen, who has an associate degree in new media from Southern Maine Community College, has only been at Unum for a few years. Before he came to the company, he said, he didn’t even know jobs like his existed. He wants to make sure high school kids know about potential careers like his, he said.
“I like to show younger people what’s out there,” said Allen. “I hope through the passion I convey about what I do, they see it’s not stuffy.”
Don Kennel, senior director of software engineering at IDEXX, said his company has done a lot of work at the college level, Kennel said, but he wanted to explore what IDEXX could do with high school students.
“If we can get high school students focusing on STEM degrees in college, that would really help grow our work force,” said Kennel. “For the industry, we need to grow more local Maine talent in the STEM sectors. There are a lot of opportunities in Maine as well as outside the state for this educational background, but for many Maine students they are not aware what real jobs are in these skills. For the state, it is critical to keep and attract STEM-based businesses.”
Douglas Drew, a guidance councilor at Portland High, said these sorts of events have to happen much more often at more businesses. And, he said, there needs to be an actual system to connect the high school students and the businesses including job shadowing, internships and other opportunities.
“Businesses across the state need to share responsibility for educating the future work force,” said Drew, adding that often students don’t even know what major employers in the state do.
“They’re all just big wizards behind the walls — the kids have no idea what goes on there.”