Are We Misinterpreting the STEM Crisis?

Encouraging students to get advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math may not be the way to solve the country's STEM problem.

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Experts argue that we need better STEM literacy overall, not just more graduates with degrees in STEM fields.

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"In Silicon Valley, where many STEM jobs are, we have to fill the positions with foreigners through H1B visas," Gillian Flatos Doornbos, a technical publications manager in the San Francisco area, says. "We can't find enough Americans to fill the positions. So yes, there is a shortage."

Prakash Vaidya, an electrical engineer and the founder of Quantronix, a software development and business consulting company, agrees that many employers "offshore" jobs to foreigners because there aren't enough Americans with STEM experience.

"Being an engineer does challenge you, but it's not necessarily the most financially rewarding," Vaidya admits. American society doesn't emphasize academics, he says, so people tend to gravitate toward more-lucrative industries instead of STEM ones. "The Americans who I've seen who are in STEM are brilliant," he adds. "You get the brightest crop of those Americans who are dedicated."

His company also helps clients hire IT professionals, and he's noticed that STEM candidates find work quickly. "Most of the people who are looking for jobs in STEM fields don't stay in the market that long," he says. "They do find jobs, sometimes with multiple people bidding for them. I guess that means the jobs are there for people who are qualified."

Business experts point out that an engineering degree doesn't automatically guarantee that a candidate will be a good engineer. To be productive, STEM employees need to have a host of life skills – logic, analysis, problem-solving – that are not honed exclusively in a college setting.

"What STEM means to the many companies across the U.S. is 'Send me someone who can think critically, apply mathematics to problems, and help us solve problems,' " Jamai Blivin, founder and CEO of Innovate + Educate, says. "Therefore, rather than companies requiring STEM 'labels,' which then creates a mismatch -- 'I don't need a biomedical engineer, I need a mechanical engineer!' -- they should begin looking at the underlying skills necessary for the job, and work with training and education partners to assure that those skills are being taught or learned."

Rather than put the onus on the employers, Charette proposes making STEM subjects a bigger part of a general curriculum, at all grade levels, rather than focusing on boosting the number of college graduates with STEM degrees. It's an idea touted by President Barack Obama as well, who earlier this year committed $3.1 billion to support teachers and to reorganize and improve STEM education programs nationwide.

"You don't necessarily need a college or university degree in a STEM discipline, but you do need to learn those subjects, and learn them well, from childhood until you head off to college or get a job," Charette writes. "Improving everyone's STEM skills would clearly be good for the workforce and for people's employment prospects, for public policy debates, and for everyday tasks like balancing checkbooks and calculating risks. And, of course, when science, math, and engineering are taught well, they engage students' intellectual curiosity about the world and how it works."

It's an idea that resonates with educators, even those who are not teaching in STEM fields.

"We need to teach people some technical skills, yes, but we also need them to be grounded in research methodology and (in short) the ability to learn new things," Suzanne Richard, who teaches English at Northeastern University in Boston, says. "This is true of all graduates because no one can predict what any career is going to look like in 10 years... The ability to think critically and to learn information as it becomes available is more important than any technical skill because your field will change, and you have to be able to change with it."

Also on U.S. News:

  • Highlights from the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference
  • More Brains? Teaching STEM by Studying Zombies
  • Top-Ranked Universities that Grant the Most STEM Degrees


  • TAGS:
    STEM education
    science
    technology
    careers
    • Lylah Alphonse

      Lylah M. Alphonse is the Managing Editor of Special Reports for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or e-mail her at LAlphonse@usnews.com.