Mel Schiavelli is president of the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania.
U.S. businesses are in a Catch-22.
They've got plenty of jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math—STEM—ready to fill.
Unfortunately, the supply of STEM workers isn't meeting businesses' needs. And this is jeopardizing our nation's ability to drive innovation and competitiveness and seize a global advantage.
The gap is baffling. A U.S. Department of Commerce report shows that in the past decade STEM jobs grew at three times the rate of non-STEM jobs, and that STEM workers have greater job stability.
The rest of this decade promises to be a bull market for STEM job seekers. Occupations in these fields are expected to grow by 17 percent by 2018, nearly double the rate of growth in non-STEM occupations.
Today 1 of every 18 workers is employed in a STEM occupation—from accountants for small retailers to engineers for airplane manufacturers, from computer programmers to mechanical engineers, and from statisticians to chemists—and the ratio is likely to shrink.
What's not prone to shrinkage is the earnings of a STEM worker, who the report says commands 26 percent higher wages than non-STEM workers. On average, STEM workers in this group earned $9 more per hour than those in other occupations in 2010. And most—9 of 10 STEM workers—have a college degree.
The white-hot competitive marketplace plays out on a worldwide stage, and as the stakes increasingly rise for the United States, STEM educators need to parlay the encouraging results of this report and continue to prepare students for careers in fields that foster breakthroughs and solutions that directly address global challenges.
It's a two-way street, though. A STEM degree is the conventional path to a STEM job, evidenced by the fact that more than two thirds of the 4.7 million STEM workers with a college degree have an undergraduate STEM degree.
However, less than half of high school graduates are ready for college-level math, and under a third are prepared for college-level science, according to the ACT (American College Testing) Condition of College & Career Readiness report.
This deficiency is, no doubt, alarming on a couple of fronts. The strength of U.S. manufacturing and the continued growth of high-technology industries are dependent on the availability of high-quality personnel, especially in the STEM disciplines. According to a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 63 percent of U.S. jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training. The vast majority of new jobs—valuable STEM careers—require higher-level skills taught through college attainment.
So, who's responsible for grooming students to meet the requirements of the 21st-century workforce?
First and foremost, educators. Offering STEM-focused courses and customizing real-world, experiential curricula is the carrot. The stick comes in the form of programs such as "Goal 2025," a national initiative spearheaded by the independent Lumina Foundation for Education aimed at increasing the percentage of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by 2025. The effort focuses on expanding access to and success in education beyond high school, particularly among adults and first-generation college-going students. Achieving this goal relies on another factor in stocking the talent pool: businesses.
American business needs to help determine what young people should know and be able to do as a result of their college experience—and then help them get there. This entails partnerships with colleges and universities, and linking STEM educational initiatives to industry growth strategies.
Dow Chemical Co. has made significant funding and support commitments to generate interest in STEM disciplines among students, providing development opportunities to science teachers and preparing candidates for advanced manufacturing jobs. In addition, Dow committed $1.2 million to expand its Chemical Education Foundation, which engages fifth- through eighth-grade students in learning about chemistry concepts, discoveries, and chemical safety.
And students need to take advantage of the educator-business partnerships that are becoming more prevalent in the nation. Northrup Grumman balances education and training to handle the challenges of nuclear-powered shipbuilding. Through an apprentice program, students receive a salary and benefits as they progress through four- and five-year programs that build skills needed for success in the industry and earn associate's degrees in business administration, engineering technology, and engineering.
The return on investment in a STEM education for students, businesses, and educators comes through loud and clear in the Commerce Department report. This is a watershed moment for the United States in its quest to secure its standing in the global economy. The engine of growth that fuels our economic competitiveness links firmly to our ability to develop and educate the most competent and adaptable workforce. Providing the necessary human capital by revitalizing STEM education is a responsibility we all share.