The State of STEM and Jobs

The first national STEM education and employment conference showcased successful programs--but there's a need to scale up.

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A year ago, U.S.News & World Report launched a special project to examine the problem of why, at a time of high unemployment, there are so many jobs going unfilled. The answer: American workers lack the necessary skills for those jobs. We came to summarize this as the STEM problem and called our project “STEM Solutions.” STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math, and it is the lack of skills in those subject areas that is behind many of the nation’s vacant jobs today—and the prospect of considerably more in the next few years.

As we learned more about the importance and complexity of this issue, we decided to move beyond just reporting on it and play a role as an information resource for both policymakers looking for solutions to a significant national problem and consumers seeking educational skills that will land them a good job. One key need that became apparent was the lack of a national forum for the many committed groups that are working in this field. We hosted that meeting this summer in Dallas, bringing together 1,600 people representing hundreds of organizations. It turned out to be a unique gathering of a surprisingly broad community of leading educators, corporate and nonprofit executives, and government officials who realize the urgency of making progress on an issue that is at the heart of America’s economic future.

“This, I believe, is a genuine grass-roots movement,” said Microsoft Executive Vice President Brad Smith at the opening of the event. “And in a sense this is the first national meeting of this grass-roots movement.”

[VIDEO: U.S. News STEM Conference Links Education and Jobs]

The outcomes of the three days of workshops and discussions at STEM Solutions 2012 make up a kind of State of STEM: what’s working and what’s not. What follows is a summary of the most important takeaways. In addition, we’re publishing speeches, videos, and other material from the conference at usnews.com. They will be part of a growing archive as we hold other events and release new reports in the months to come, leading up to STEM Solutions 2013 next June in Austin. Based on the dozens of presentations and feedback from participants, here are the conclusions, and the unfinished business:

  • STEM is as much about jobs as education. It’s about middle-class jobs, many of which don’t require bachelor’s degrees.
  • Overall, STEM education is getting worse, not better. At the college level, too many capable students are being washed out of STEM majors. Better teaching methods could increase retention and create 30,000 more engineers in four years. Some schools are showing how to do it; all schools need to follow.
  • Community colleges are an undervalued resource offering the potential to help many students through skills-based learning tied to jobs. However, they inherit too many high school graduates in need of remedial help and face continued government funding cuts. Cooperation with local businesses has been successful for some schools.
  • For K-12 students, it’s about doing your math homework. Math is the single most important subject for student success. Students who don’t master Algebra I by freshman year will have bleak prospects of getting a decent job.
  • Women, Hispanics, and African- Americans are the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity: Often for cultural reasons, they are underrepresented in many STEM areas, yet they make up the bulk of the future workforce. Mentor programs have helped change perceptions of STEM careers.
  • Hands-on learning that links math and science to the real world works best for all students. Online learning and other new technologies show promise but have to be refined and vetted. Combining good teachers with technology may be the game changer.
  • There is a severe shortage of qualified math teachers. The most successful teachers are the ones who were trained the same way they teach: by making math and science real-life, hands-on.
  • There are many more kids who would like to go into STEM careers than generally recognized, but they aren’t properly prepared and mostly drop out.