STEM Education Is the Key to the U.S.'s Economic Future

We need to encourage more students to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math.

<i>U.S. News</i>'s Best High Schools for STEM are leading the push for science and technology education.
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John Engler is the president of Business Roundtable and a former governor of Michigan.

A close look at American unemployment statistics reveals a contradiction: Even with unemployment at historically high levels, large numbers of jobs are going unfilled. Many of these jobs have one thing in common–the need for an educational background in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Increasingly, one of our richest sources of employment and economic growth will be jobs that require skills in these areas, collectively known as STEM. The question is: Will we be able to educate enough young Americans to fill them?

Yes, the unemployment numbers have been full of bad news for the past few years. But there has been good news too. While the overall unemployment rate has slowly come down to May's still-high 8.2 percent, for those in STEM occupations the story is very different.

[Check out the U.S. News STEM blog.]

According to a recently released study from Change the Equation, an organization that supports STEM education, there are 3.6 unemployed workers for every job in the United States. That compares with only one unemployed STEM worker for two unfilled STEM jobs throughout the country. Many jobs are going unfilled simply for lack of people with the right skill sets. Even with more than 13 million Americans unemployed, the manufacturing sector cannot find people with the skills to take nearly 600,000 unfilled jobs, according to a study last fall by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte.

The hardest jobs to fill were skilled positions, including well-compensated blue collar jobs like machinists, operators, and technicians, as well as engineering technologists and sciences.

As Raytheon Chairman and CEO William Swanson said at a Massachusetts' STEM Summit last fall, "Too many students and adults are training for jobs in which labor surpluses exist and demand is low, while high-demand jobs, particularly those in STEM fields, go unfilled."

STEM-related skills are not just a source of jobs, they are a source of jobs that pay very well. A report last October from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that 65 percent of those with Bachelors' degrees in STEM fields earn more than Master's degrees in non-STEM occupations. In fact, 47 percent of Bachelor's degrees in STEM occupations earn more than PhDs in non-STEM occupations.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Foreign STEM Graduates Get Green Cards?]

But despite the lucrative potential, many young people are reluctant to enter into fields that require a background in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. In a recent study by the Lemselson-MIT Invention Index, which gauges innovation aptitude among young adults, 60 percent of young adults (ages 16 to 25) named at least one factor that prevented them from pursuing further education or work in the STEM fields. Thirty-four percent said they don't know much about the fields, a third said they were too challenging, and 28 percent said they were not well-prepared at school to seek further education in these areas.

This is a problem—for young people and for our country. We need STEM-related talent to compete globally, and we will need even more in the future. It is not a matter of choice: For the United States to remain the global innovation leader, we must make the most of all of the potential STEM talent this country has to offer.

Government can play a critical part. President Barack Obama's goal of 100,000 additional science, technology, engineering, and math teachers is laudable. The president's STEM campaign leverages mostly private-sector funding. Called Educate to Innovate, it has spawned Change the Equation, whose study was cited above. A nongovernmental organization, Change the Equation was set up by more than 100 CEOs, with the cooperation of state governments and educational organizations and foundations to align corporate efforts in STEM education.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]