The State of STEM

U.S. News STEM Solutions summit gets underway as demand for skilled tech workers far exceeds supply.

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Five years from now, more than a third of the STEM workforce will be made up of those with associate degrees, certificates, employer certifications and other credentials, rather than bachelor's degrees, according to projections from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

Of course, not all the momentum has been happening on the education side of the equation. Employers, too, have been doing their part to demand better training and specific skills of the education community, and to work with it, government and other sectors to fill jobs now and for the future.

In addition to lending their support to new education standards and STEM development programs, many businesses are championing the cause of immigration reform and expanding the number of H-1B visas offered to skilled high-tech foreign graduates, capped at 65,000 for fiscal year 2014. "The current immigration system stifles our country's innovative and entrepreneurial spirit and can cause highly skilled professionals to leave our country and ultimately compete against us," wrote Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association, which represents leading Internet companies like Amazon, Yahoo, and Google, for CNN in April.

That debate is currently playing out on Capitol Hill as the Senate considers the comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced by the bipartisan "gang of eight" in April, which includes a provision to at least double the H-1B visa limit. Businesses are also courting women, African-American and Hispanic people, those with disabilities and other underrepresented populations for STEM jobs in order to boost diversity and overall capacity.

Women comprise close to half of the U.S. workforce, but hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, notes the U.S. Department of Commerce. Compare that to the nearly three-quarters of high school girls in the United States who are interested in the STEM fields, according to the Girl Scout Research Institute. Recruiting such underrepresented individuals early on, while they're still in school, will be key to shoring up a full and innovation-minded workforce in an era of rapidly expanding health care, 3-D printers, drones, cybersecurity and driverless cars.

With the advent of new technology and labor opportunities, manufacturing is undergoing something of a makeover. After shedding millions of positions in the last decade, the industry is starting to bounce back: more than 500,000 jobs created in the U.S. since 2010. Still, the Manufacturing Institute reports that some 600,000 positions remain unfilled because employers can't find properly skilled workers for them. To that end, the institute has ushered in a new skills certification program to arm prospective employees with ultra-specific credentials that demonstrate their talents in welding or mechatronics, for instance, and give hiring managers a better idea of how these skills line up with what they're looking for than a degree might. There's a similar idea behind the newly blossoming online badges, which denote particular talents in, say, robotics or computer science and are being developed by a wide range of organizations, from Carnegie Mellon University to Disney/Pixar to NASA. The idea suggests something like a Boy Scout badge for the digital age.

A number of STEM-hungry companies, including General Electric, Apple and Google, have recently opened up new shops or announced plans to do so in the United States. China-based Lenovo, one of the world's largest PC manufacturers, opened an operations factory in Whitsett, N.C., in January. Motorola plans to build its new smart phone at a facility in Fort Worth, Texas, and create some 2,000 jobs along the way.

Some hope this could signal a broader trend of businesses "re-shoring" jobs in this country after so many years of sending work overseas. And workforce development programs across the country are plugging into STEM needs and incubating effective partnerships between educators and industry.

Government is getting it, too. "When it comes to STEM, the connection with local employers is probably the place where you'd have the best opportunity to fail or to succeed," Delaware Gov. Jack Markell told U.S. News last month. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has suggested that the state's public universities offer cheaper degrees in the STEM fields in order to encourage more students to bite.