Rising to the STEM Challenge

By Tiffany Trader

September 19, 2013

Around the world, community, industry and academic leaders bemoan the “skills gap,” the divide between the profile of those seeking employment and the actual requirements of the marketplace. A number of studies have reported that during the next decade, there will be millions of available jobs in so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and not enough qualified candidates to fill those positions.

The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine describe STEM as “high-quality, knowledge-intensive jobs…that lead to discovery and new technology,” benefiting the US economy and standard of living. The US may be short by as many as three million of these highly-skilled workers by 2018, putting national competitiveness at risk.

The National Math + Science Initiative refers to this shortage as a STEM crisis, which they say creates a chilling effect in research and the economy.

Some data points:

  • The demand for STEM skills has risen dramatically. STEM-based jobs grew at over three times the pace of non-STEM jobs between 2000 and 2010 and are expected to grow almost twice as fast by 2018.
  • As of February 2012, more than half of the 30 fastest growing occupations require training over and above a high-school diploma. But American students aren’t keeping pace with their foreign counterparts. American universities only award about a third of the bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering as Asian universities.
  • 25 years ago, the US led the world in high school and college graduation rates. Today, the US has dropped to 20th and 16th, respectively. The decline in education relative to other countries has a troubling effect on R&D. By 2009, for the first time, over half of US patents were awarded to non-US companies.

President Obama’s administration maintains that STEM education is vital to keeping the nation competitive. The President has supported efforts to train young people for technologically-driven careers, but government funding is struggling and many states are facing budget cuts. As a result, there is a greater emphasis on collaborative endeavors, public-private partnerships where vendors share some of the cost and then benefit from the research through technology-transfer programs.

The business sector has also aligned with communities and schools to encourage interest in science-based careers. Intel and Lockheed Martin, for example, have helped inspire young talent by sponsoring tournaments, science fairs and other innovation challenges. The Intel Foundation hosts some of the world’s largest pre-college science fair competitions and also runs the Educators Academy, an online community for K-12 educators. Lockheed Martin is also doing its part to advance STEM education, by sponsoring outreach activities for students from elementary school through college.

The Gender Factor

The gender disparity in the science and math-driven disciplines continues, but hidden in this problem is a source of immense potential. While women make up 51 percent of the overall workforce, they comprise only 26 percent of STEM workers. Solving for this disparity would go a long way to minimizing the skills gap, and helping the United States meet its projected skilled employment needs.

The computer science field highlights the slow pace of change. While the past decades’ attention to female equality has paid off as higher participation in most STEM fields, the number of women in the computational sciences has actually fallen. Recent Census Bureau findings show the number of female computer workers, employed in such roles as developers, programmers, and security analysts, has been on a 20-plus-year decline. In 1990, a full third of computer workers were women, but now that number has dropped to 27 percent.

An article at the Alantic about the “Brogrammer Effect” delves further into the data, noting the women in computer science are more likely to be Web developers (40 percent) than software developers (22 percent). The author makes the connection that less women are entering the field because they’re not pursuing computer science degrees: women’s participation in computer science education peaked in the 1980s. So why the lack of interest?

There are certainly cultural implications. Where male nerdism is accepted, embraced even, geeky women don’t have quite the same cachet. And while it’s easy to think of geek-chic role models like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, their female equivalents don’t spring as readily to mind.

According to a recent US Census survey, computer workers make up about a half of STEM employment, and STEM pays well. Students who pursue a degree in a field pertaining to computers, mathematics, statistics or engineering are the most likely to secure full-time, year-round employment and the least likely to be unemployed. Earnings paralleled employment rates, with engineering majors averaging earnings of $92,000 per year and those coming from arts and humanities fields making about $55,000 annually.

Even the social studies, the arts and humanities, which tend to be more female-dominated, are becoming more technology-driven and are tapping the benefits of computer science. New research fields are springing up with names like “petascale humanities.” In fact, a new acronym has arisen that reflects the importance of the arts in the national curricula and the new economy. Proponents of “STEAM” (the “A” is for Arts) point out that creativity is an essential component of innovation.

Women continue to earn less than their male counterparts across every field of degree. Still women in high-tech jobs earn about 25 percent more than those in non-science fields. Advocates should not be afraid to play the money card, observes the executive director of the nonprofit group Science Club for Girls, Connie Chow, in this New York Times piece on the dearth of women scientists. That earning-potential can have a strong motivating effect, especially for students in low-income communities.

Preparation and Inspiration

Community and education leaders maintain that increasing student engagement in STEM subjects and addressing the shortage of qualified STEM teachers are necessary to ensure the future success of the US. For all students, and for women and minorities especially, early exposure to STEM subjects is critically important, as is being surrounded by a community of STEM professionals.

Central to this strategy is recruiting qualified teachers and giving them the means to develop into effective instructors. Studies confirm the common sense idea that there is a strong link between teacher performance and student success. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) estimates that the US will need more than 100,000 STEM teachers over the next decade.

The authors of the report advise: “To meet our needs for a STEM-capable citizenry, a STEM-proficient workforce, and future STEM experts, the nation must focus on two complementary goals: We must prepare all students, including girls and minorities who are underrepresented in these fields, to be proficient in STEM subjects. And we must inspire all students to learn STEM and, in the process, motivate many of them to pursue STEM careers.”

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