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Stumbling Blocks to STEM Workforce
By John Freeman Posted:April 27, 2014 0 Comments
When many people talk about STEM education policy, they tend to talk in large terms. They talk about the millions of new jobs that are going to be added to the nation's payroll over the next decade in STEM. They talk about the millions of students that are interested in STEM and what percentage of them are minority or female. Less often, however, do people talk about the small, individualized goals of STEM education, namely, to match a specific student to a specific STEM job. This tendency to overgeneralize can lead to a too-farsighted approach that loses track of some basic trends in STEM that will affect the overall development of the industry for the coming years. Two trends that are of special note for STEM education are industry development and geography.

STEM education grew out of the idea that science, technology, engineering and mathematics would be the backbone of the future economy. However, the fact that each of these letters is given equal billing in the acronym may mislead some to believe that they will be equally relevant to the future STEM workforce. With rapidly growing biomedical research, some may think that life sciences are going to make up a large chunk of new jobs. In reality, they are projected to only be four percent of the new STEM workforce. Mathematics will only be two percent, and physical sciences will account for nine percent of growth. The two largest fields, by far, will be engineering at 16 percent and computer science technology at 71 percent. In fact, two subfields in computer science software engineering and computer networking each make up a larger percent of the projected workforce growth than physical sciences, life sciences and mathematics combined. This is not to say that technology should be emphasized to the exclusion of other subjects in STEM education. Skills can be gained in the science and math classrooms that are applicable to a wide range of fields. But it should be noted that not every STEM degree will be equally marketable. There will be a much higher demand for computer and technology-related skills than for hard sciences. Understanding this can help policymakers and educators create STEM education opportunities that help expose students to critically needed skills while also helping to guide them towards fields that will experience the greatest amount of growth and need for new blood.

One area that raises concerns for the effectiveness of the STEM education pipeline is the geographic placement of STEM careers. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a rise in the number of STEM jobs across the country over the next ten years, these numbers are highest in states with large urban population centers such as California, Texas and New York and lowest in rural settings like Wyoming, South Dakota and Alaska. However, population size is not the only predictor of STEM growth. Several areas, such as Washington state, Colorado and the District of Colombia are expected to have higher than average STEM growth. This data can be interpreted in two ways. First, it provides further proof that a solid STEM education is a true need in every part of the country because these jobs exist everywhere. However, it also shows that STEM openings may be geographically uneven.

A reality of the modern workforce that will only become increasingly common in future years is that many people in specialized fields will have to move to find work or for advancement. Preparing students for this is a necessary part of getting them successfully through the STEM pipeline. Conversely, if students want to stay in a particular area, encouraging them to explore STEM opportunities that are prevalent to that region will assist them. After all, there is no point in studying to be a software engineer if the city a student wants to live in has no computer industry worth speaking of. Helping students target their ambitions towards their future goals with an eye towards geography can help them cull their options down to a more manageable list out of the vast array of opportunities that STEM education presents.

These issues show that the conversation about STEM education cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach that seeks to solve industry-wide problems with global solutions. Instead, STEM education priorities should be tailored towards meeting the geographic and industry needs of students and employers. This need for personalization does not preclude a national plan; nor, for that matter, does it promote state or locality-based education autonomy. Rather, it calls for a more nuanced view in providing students the precise skills that they will need to meet the rapidly expanding and changing STEM economy.