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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Those are clearly questions that much of the world has been answering aggressively. The STEM problem in the United States is most clear when viewed against the gap we see between our high school students and those in China, South Korea, and much of Europe. Or the huge volume of mid-level engineers being produced by a place like India. “We’ve invested nearly a billion dollars,” said AT&T’s John Donovan of their education program, “because we need a continual supply of smart, skilled workers in our increasingly competitive workplace.” U.S. companies are seeing this need more clearly than the education establishment. “Decline is a choice, it’s not a fate,” said Wes Bush, CEO of Northrop Grumman.

The corporate role is crucial. The STEM jobs problem is a case where demand must lead supply. Employers must communicate with a fragmented education system about the skills they need in their workers, now and in the future. Educators, the smart ones, are going to have to follow that lead. In Dallas, there was much evidence of that beginning to happen.

[STEM Associate's Degree Pays More Than Liberal Arts Bachelor]

Where it’s taking place is mostly on a state or regional level. Local employers are partnering with universities and community colleges to reshape courses and create hands-on internships that turn into jobs. Northrop Grumman and the University of Maryland created a specialized program in cybersecurity; the Business-Higher Education Forum, which pairs CEOs with college presidents, discussed the successful partnerships they have created in St. Louis and Louisville, Ky. Everyone agreed that the next step was to scale up these efforts.

To that end, one major outcome was the launching of STEMx, a national network that acts as a clearinghouse to share the work being done on a state level between businesses, educators, and governments. Managed by the Battelle Corp., the network launched with 11 states including North Carolina, Ohio, Washington, and Texas, and more are coming on board. The state networks are forging relationships between business, industry, and schools from pre-K to graduate programs. The objective is to put the best thinking behind the design of in-school and out-of-school programs to create better teachers and encourage more students to pursue math and science fields.

The sweep of industries affected by the STEM skills shortage was revealing, from healthcare, energy production and distribution, and autos to the whole slowly renewing domestic manufacturing area, transportation, and agriculture. “There are no more jobs that require a strong back,” said Tom Luce, the force behind the successful National Math and Science Initiative. “We have to explain to parents and kids that 30 years ago you could have a living wage job and not be STEM capable. Today that is not possible.”

It would be naive to try to oversimplify this intricate problem. But there are some clear next steps. Broader public awareness is crucial. Public demand for better education and jobs information will drive behavior at all levels. Creating a message that resonates is essential. The brand marketers have to step forward. “Just Do the Math” might work if a certain shoe company doesn’t mind. “Math Means Money” could have a catchy beat.

The talented students dropping out of ill-conceived university science programs is an immediate fix. “We at universities have to look in the mirror and agree that we can do a better job of supporting our students so that if we tell them they can come into engineering, they’ve got a good shot at making it in engineering,” said Freeman Hrabowski, head of the University of Maryland–Baltimore County.

In K-12, teachers are crucial, but minting many thousands in the next few years won’t happen. Technology is likely the missing ingredient based on evidence that there are better ways to learn. Getting the good teachers to amplify their skills is the only solution; you can’t mass produce enough to meet the need.

Some communities get it. U.S. News’s ranking of Best STEM High Schools shows that folks in high-income zip codes like Palo Alto, Calif., Westchester, N.Y., and the Washington, D.C., suburbs have the right schools. Success is possible anywhere: Magnet and charter schools all over the country perform well. But there aren’t nearly enough schools on our list. “The fact that it’s not being done for 55 million children is our fault,” said NMSI’s Luce. “That’s a lack of public will.”