Now more than ever, it is critical for our youth to have core competencies with technology. The public rhetoric used to be (and to a certain degree, remains) analysts and workforce experts bemoaning the need to push more students into STEM fields to meet the growing demand for qualified experts.

Creating a helpful framework

Today, there are in fact enough students studying these fields according to Joann Weiner, an economics professor at George Washington University. But, we can’t stop there. We need to refocus our message in a new direction: “How can we groom the next generation of innovators who will solve the big problems?” The next chapter in our efforts to prepare youth for careers in STEM will be developing the “soft skills” essential to their long-term success in a world dominated by technology and global connectivity.

Today, innovative companies and managers are looking for new hires who not only have the technical skills to get the job done, but also the emotional intelligence to work with a diverse range of people, collaborate within a team, think creatively, solve complex problems and communicate effectively. This is where we must focus our efforts.

“By grounding students in soft skills as they build their technical skills, we’ll set the stage for more hiring, better professional outlooks...”

Honing the soft skills

Whether you’re an educator or a parent, we each have a stake in ensuring tomorrow’s workforce has these necessary skill sets. The importance of fostering an educational balance cannot be overstated and the impetus to provide access falls on us. Enrollment in afterschool STEM programs can prepare kids for a lifetime of academic and professional success.

Take, for example, students involved in introductory programs centered on robotics. Collaborating in teams supervised by educators and professional mentors, they build robots with limited time and resources. Middle-school participants in FIRST LEGO League, for example, are already bona fide inventors, annually tackling real-world problems and creating innovative solutions that have the potential to add significant value in the world. In fact, some have even earned patents, while all have the opportunity to win money with which they can bring their products to market.

Embracing new ways to compete

Contrary to what you might think, these programs are not for a niche group of kids. In fact, some are becoming increasingly popular and are even being approved as varsity sports: Texas, Minnesota and Connecticut have taken the plunge, and more states are expected to sign on as well, a push that only further validates the importance of these programs.

Even if students don’t ultimately pursue a career in a STEM field, it’s inarguable that afterschool STEM programs provide value in the soft skills they encourage. Not to mention the inspiration, self-confidence and motivation students develop by having made something work completely by themselves—without the added pressure of testing or grades. By grounding students in soft skills as they build their technical skills, we’ll set the stage for more hiring, better professional outlooks and, ultimately, a better tomorrow for our kids—our next generation of innovators and problem-solvers.