(Courtesy of HNTB)
Lynda Parker, assistant principal of King College Prep; Mayor Rahm Emmanuel; Uzziel Fernandez, HNTB Chicago civil engineering intern and Michelle Graham, HNTB GLD director of governmental relations. (Courtesy of HNTB)

While tech innovation may seem to move at lightning speed, several corporations recently made a commitment to grooming talent that may not make their contributions to the industry for another decade.

This year seven public high schools across Chicago are building up engineering curriculum and resources through corporate sponsorships aimed at bolstering the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) pipeline. Partner companies, which include Paschen, James Dyson Foundation, Thornton Tomasetti, and HNTB, will work with schools to develop training, courses, and opportunities unique to each school’s STEM needs.

The hope is that by investing in students now, those kids will be able to build up the skills they will need for careers they will start in the future.  Currently that isn’t the case for many students: a 2011 Microsoft survey found only one in five STEM college students felt that their K–12 education prepared them exceptionally well for college coursework in these subjects. That’s on top of CPS already having a tough time once graduating high school: only 14 percent of current ninth graders in CPS are expected to graduate from a four-year college in under six years, a UChicago study found last year.

Big businesses, such as Kansas City-based transportation engineering firm HNTB are starting to take notice. The firm has had a presence in Chicago for over 50 years and has contributed to major infrastructure projects such as a design of Midway Airport, planning the Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, and overhaul of the Wilson Red Line station. They’re partnering with Martin Luther King Jr. College Prep in Kenwood with the hopes that major Chicago projects they take on in the future can be spearheaded by those who grew up in the city and want to make their mark.

“We’ve worked on some of the coolest, greatest projects here in Chicago, but it does take talent to work on those projects throughout the city,” said Amar Rajpurkar, Chicago office leader at HNTB. “We have an aging workforce, so we have to start thinking about the future. Who will be those future engineers?”

“We have a fighting chance to get those kids inspired, prepared and working for us. But [we] have to start that now,” he added.

In talking to principles, school leaders, and participating in other programs such as these in Chicago, Rajpurkar said getting students excited about STEM is usually one of the first major hurdles in getting them into the pipeline. For example, students may not think of designing an airport concourse when they think of a career in tech, but Rajpurkar said that by reframing infrastructure engineering as the opportunity to think creatively about important problems in their city, students get engaged.

“It may be hard, but it is also very exciting and rewarding,” he said. “Everything we touch in infrastructure has a place in society.”

With that in mind, he anticipates that creating excitement around STEM, then following up with support for skill development will be how HNTB contributes to King College Prep’s engineering curriculum. Specifics of their partnership haven’t been nailed down yet, and he anticipates kicking off any initiatives in early 2016.

However, something he definitely wants to see is more hands on experience for students, something that he has seen make major impact in the past. This past year HNTB had an intern from CPS who wrote Rajpurkar a thank you note that mentioned how he was the first in his family to have worked as an engineer. This fall that student is starting at IIT studying civil engineering.

“This is why we want to do what we do,” said Rajpurkar. “They will be the ones that drive this company.”