Lake views from the Milwaukee innovation labs

Karl Gouverneur

VP Digital Workplace & Corporate Solutions

Topics: tech advancement.

Let’s Raise Tech-Creator Girls and Boys

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn

Look around and you’ll see kids and teens using technology. It’s part of our culture – reinforced by media, celebrities, athletes, social media influencers and more. From LeapFrog learning pads to smartphones to tablets to laptops, current societal trends point to tech being trendy and “cool.” Used responsibly and in moderation, this exposure to technology is a good first step in a child’s lifelong journey to be tech savvy.

Our American culture is effectively empowering everyone to use technology. It’s no surprise to me that 82% of American high schools students regularly use a smartphone. What’s shocking to me is that, in 2018, only 35% of American high schools teach computer science, and only 26 states have K-12 computer science standards.

We must empower our boys and our girls to create technology. We need to make “makers” cool. Because if we do, our future will be brighter. Our children, teams, companies, cities, regions, states and nation will be better positioned to compete and win in the digital era.

Today, tech makers have tremendous opportunities in the marketplace. There are 500,000 current career openings in computing across the U.S. One research firm predicts that 30% of information technology jobs will go unfilled in the year 2022 due to the tight talent pool. This sector is projected to grow at twice the rate of all other jobs, according to Code.org. While building the future, they can build a bright future for themselves too. A computer science graduate can earn about 40% more than a typical college graduate.

At Northwestern Mutual, attracting tech talent is critical. Our Chairman, President and CEO John Schlifske characterized our competition for tech talent well: “ We’re all hands on deck.” Our company is working to build the industry’s best client experience – pairing skilled advisors with second-to-none tech planning tools so people can spend less time enduring financial anxiety and more time living life to its fullest.

Our company’s talent acquisition professionals are working hard to find savvy financial advisors and tomorrow’s digital talent. Why? Because, to me, companies and countries that value tech innovators will lead the decades to come.

If there’s such a need in the marketplace, why doesn’t Adam Smith’s invisible hand guide America’s youth into the career? What kind of force is powerful enough to counteract mighty market forces? If you ask me, it’s our American culture.

There are too few influencers encouraging our children to use science, engineering, math and technology (STEM) to create things. And too often, there are detractors.

As parents and as business leaders, the key thing to remember is that *we* too have tremendous power. We can use our influence to push back and create a culture where anyone can be a maker.

Here’s what I think is needed:

Build safe spaces for technology.

Societal movements don’t start with rallies – they start with kitchen table conversations at home. Help your own children, their friends and classmates build courage and curiosity. Show them that they, indeed, have what it takes to create with technology.

Some people don’t feel empowered to act because they’re not computer whizzes themselves. Here’s the truth. You don’t have to be a coding expert to build connections. Websites like Code.org have a wide variety of fun, free, age-appropriate intro-to-coding games and tutorial tools. Grab a seat and watch them program cartoon animal dance moves, solve Minecraft challenges, and more.

Empowering, safe spaces are especially important for our girls, who are vastly underrepresented in tech roles. Be sensitive to the culture you’re creating at home. When you purchase toys that require spatial and other motor skills like LEGOs and drones, don’t buy them exclusively for your boys. Let your girls create, make mistakes, imagine and invent too!

Some people see girls-only STEM camps as a solution. I agree. Programs like these can enable young women to come together, push gender-based cultural and societal pressures to the side, and explore this career track alongside each other.

Squash the stigma.

While you’re building up the next generation’s enthusiasm for STEM, keep a careful eye out for detractors. People who are insecure about their own misunderstanding of technology are quick to label tech creators as “nerds” or “geeks” in a negative context. And adults who fail to reach children are quick to label others as inept instead of taking accountability.

I vividly remember a time 13 years ago when my wife and I met with a school guidance counselor about our daughter. While discussing my daughter’s struggles in trigonometry, he shrugged and said, “Well, Mr. Gouverneur, sometimes trigonometry isn’t a good fit for girls.”

Candidly, I was upset. I had to reach into my arsenal of self-awareness and emotional intelligence in order to continue our meeting. This influential man was suggesting that my daughter – and perhaps all young girls – might not be capable of succeeding in math. I said, “Nonsense!”

My wife and I took matters into our own hands, found a tutor who believed in her, jumped in where we could with support and affirmations. And if you’re wondering, yes, that school counselor and administration got an earful of feedback from us too. And you know what? Her grade went up. In a few months, she’ll graduate from college and begin a career as she graduates with honors from college. With a degree in Human Capital Management, she will help set compensation levels, analyze the costs and impacts of health care benefits and more. Don’t tell me that she can’t do math. I am very proud of her.

If you see someone pushing kids’ interest in STEM down, push back vigorously. If people in your loved ones’ lives are giving bad guidance, let them know. Be relentless.

Make connections and become an influencer.

Get outside of your four walls at home and at work. Build your coalition. Advocate to leaders in the community like parent-teacher organizations, school teachers and administrators, sports team coaches, leaders of Girl and Boy Scout troops and more to see what they’re doing to shift the culture.

And if you don’t like what you see, lead from the front and be the change. Run for school board and elected office. Join community boards and Chambers of Commerce.

At Northwestern Mutual, we’re partnering with fellow businesses and organizations across greater Milwaukee to host Hour of Code events and introduce children to coding concepts. Last week, Northwestern Mutual alone helped to host more than 20 events that taught 1,000+ “Hours of Code” across Greater Milwaukee. Community-wide results are coming soon.

That effort is just one part of Northwestern Mutual’s “hi, Tech” program, which drives tech-career excitement all year long for students, grades K-12. From education and hands-on programming to events and real-world experiences, students connect to, explore and transform the world around them through technology. Students don’t just build apps – they build confidence. They don’t just unlock the next game level – they unlock their career potential. And they don’t just design websites – they design their futures.

Working with students in grades K-12 in Greater Milwaukee, our employees help develop curriculum that aligns with real-world experience and needs. We also empower teachers to build up their own confidence and capabilities to teach courses like computer science.

We also offer tech boot camp and internship experiences to as many high school students as we can – giving them the exciting real-world opportunity to test-drive the career, make connections and open doors.

This didn’t happen overnight. It took months and months of hard work, with many stakeholders urging leaders to change our culture, breed creators and build a brighter future.

Create pathways.

You might think that young adults do not need your help – but this is a critical stage in their lives. If there are no bridges connecting K-12 education to college, our children will be left on the wrong side of history. Advocate to build relationships with and join advisory boards for local universities. Volunteer by providing adult guidance in one of the many programs available. Help people in power and students see how they could use the skills in an in-demand career.

In June, we announced an exciting $40 million partnership to create the Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute, a partnership between Marquette University, UW-Milwaukee and Northwestern Mutual to fund endowed professorships, new data science faculty, data research projects and expanded student programming. That’s the kind of bold bridge that can connect our kids to tech careers and lift up our companies and communities.

What else can we as parents and business leaders do to shift our culture and inspire future makers? Let me know.

Zero to 60 in Three Weeks: Lessons from Our Tech Minicamp

We hosted more than a dozen high school students this summer during Northwestern Mutual's Tech Minicamp. They made amazing progress in just a few weeks and, as developers, we learned a lot, too!