It's a great tribute to UEC Electronics and its president, Rebecca Ufkes, that the company garnered a visit from SBA Administrator Karen Mills this week.

The national Defense Authorization Act of 2013 should help UEC and other women-owned small businesses get more contracts like the $40 million deal UEC landed from the Marines in 2012.

The company employs almost 200 people, though Ufkes notes that the number of female engineers there is just three, herself included.

That's a number that needs improving.

Ufkes is doing her part, but it requires input at every level to make a change of this magnitude. Science, technology, engineering and math, what's commonly referred to as STEM, needs to be on more people's radars — especially more women's.

Start early

Ufkes' path into engineering was paved by her mother, who worked at Chrysler and steered her toward math and science.

“She really encouraged me to be logical about what I wanted to do, how I was going to support myself.”

Elementary and middle school is the time when kids are deciding how seriously they're going to take school and when things like field trips, educational videos, and Lego and robotics contests can have the most impact.

One of the most important things in encouraging more people, especially women, to study in the STEM area, Ufkes said, is simply making them aware of the many career options available.

You don't have to be an engineer. STEM can lead you to advanced manufacturing, technician jobs, design or lab work. “A technical degree can open a lot of doors,” she said.

One report shows that in South Carolina, there are 1.8 STEM jobs for every unemployed person in the state, yet for every non-STEM job there are five unemployed people.

“Why aren't we aggressively cultivating these children to go in the direction where the jobs are, where the industry needs them?”

Of course, it's a tough course-load in college, especially in the early years. However, recent college graduates who have found themselves unemployed and saddled with student loan debt might be wishing they'd gone the STEM route after all.

Ufkes does her part to foster interest and excitement about STEM. She speaks at SPAWAR's Girls Day Out events, she mentors, and her company offers tours.

She's not the only one making this push, but this is a bandwagon that needs more people jumping on.

Teacher training

Another part of this process is making sure there are enough teachers in the STEM area to encourage and educate students. The American Board helps people make the transition from other science and math careers to certified teaching. For those looking for a second career, it's a great option to do good work.

If you're interested, there are two sessions today at the Johns Island Library, 3531 Maybank Highway, at 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. More sessions are forthcoming; check online at abcte.org for details.

Increasing attention to STEM will benefit our children, our economy and our state.

Reach Melanie Balog at 937-5565 or mbalog@postandcourier.com.