U.S. Faces Tough STEM Road Unless Sweeping Improvements Are Made

A skilled and educated workforce is the cornerstone to promoting economic growth and increasing the innovation capacity of a company and even a nation. Yet it’s also the hardest asset to acquire, a growing mountain of data warns.

While millions of Americans are unemployed or underemployed, many employers say they cannot find enough qualified candidates for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs. The concern becomes more urgent when considering the millions of aging workers who will soon reach traditional retirement age.

There has been no dearth of data warning of a talent gap in the United States.

The U.S. education system is having a tough time preparing students with STEM skills to meet the requirements of high-tech jobs. Credit: Colleen Simon/opensource.com

In May, ManpowerGroup reported that U.S. employers are struggling to find available talent more than their global counterparts. In a survey of nearly 40,000 employers across 41 countries and territories, including more than 1,300 U.S. employers, 49 percent of U.S. employers said they are experiencing difficulty filling mission-critical positions within their organizations, compared with 34 percent of employers worldwide. Based on the findings, the positions that are most difficult to fill are skilled trades, engineers and IT staff, all of which have appeared on ManpowerGroup’s U.S. list multiple times since the survey began in 2006.

As Manufacturing Suffers, Lack of Talent Pipeline Is ‘Striking’

Considering the high level of technical sophistication and complexity involved in today’s industrial processes, manufacturers report having been hit particularly hard by the lack of skilled workers. A 2011 report from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, the research arm of the National Association of Manufacturers, found that 67 percent of manufacturers are facing a moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers, with 74 percent of manufacturers reporting the largest staffing shortages in skilled production (including machinists, operators and technicians), followed by production support (including industrial engineers and manufacturing engineers), which was cited by 42 percent of respondents.

Moreover, 56 percent of manufacturers anticipate the gap to grow worse over the next few years.

Meanwhile, a recent study from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) suggests that although the current skills gap is less severe than many believe, it could become more acute in coming years if steps are not taken now to address the situation. The average age for highly skilled manufacturing workers in the U.S. is 56, and with many expected to retire over the next decade, the U.S. economy will need to produce a considerable number of new employees to compensate for the so-called brain drain.

A key factor of this talent shortage is the widening gap between the business demand for high-skilled labor and the supply of college graduates with STEM-related knowledge and degrees.

“Economists don’t agree on a lot. One area, however, of little debate is that future American competitiveness is highly dependent on producing a skilled workforce with significant abilities in math and science,” according to a Deloitte paper titled 21st Century Education, part of the Deloitte21 global education and skills initiative. “American colleges and universities are not graduating enough scientists and engineers to meet the expected needs of our future economic growth.”

Although the National Science Board’s (NSB) comprehensive Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 study shows improvements in the number of students attaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in STEM fields, the NSB calls the low U.S. share of global engineering degrees in recent years “striking.”

Roughly 5 million first university degrees (equivalent to a U.S. bachelor’s degree) were awarded in science and technology worldwide in 2008: Students in China earned about 23 percent of those, countries in the European Union earned about 19 percent, and those in the U.S. earned about 10 percent. Whereas science and engineering degrees accounted for about one-third of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in the U.S. in 2008, in Japan and China more than half of equivalent first degrees were awarded, according to the NSB. In the U.S., about 4 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2008 were in engineering, compared with about 19 percent throughout Asia and 31 percent in China specifically.

While no single reason accounts for the low share of U.S. graduates in STEM field studies, students’ inadequate math and science preparation from early in their education — particularly grades K through 12 — and an unwillingness to commit to the additional study time needed for math and science courses relative to other classes are likely contributing factors.

Meanwhile, high tuition costs are an increasingly significant barrier to college attendance. Whether for a two- or four-year degree, tuition has climbed much faster than household incomes in recent years, restricting the flow of STEM graduates from U.S. universities and compounding the likelihood of talent supply being insufficient to meet talent demand in coming years.

Approximately 1 million more professionals will be needed to fill STEM jobs over the next decade, according to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). To meet this demand, the U.S. will need to increase STEM-degree graduates by about 34 percent annually, PCAST posits.

“Encouragingly, while this need may seem daunting, it can be accomplished with only a modest increase in the retention rate of STEM majors during the first few years of college. That’s because fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete college with a STEM degree today,” according to PCAST’s report fact sheet. “Increasing the retention of STEM majors to just 50 percent would, alone, generate approximately three-quarters of the targeted 1 million additional STEM degrees over the next decade by increasing the annual number of graduates with bachelor or associate degrees in STEM fields to about 370,000 from the current 300,000.”

U.S. Needs to Overhaul Public Image of Manufacturing, Education System

The linkage between education and economic prosperity is a key element of a vibrant and successful nation. Providing a high-quality education to American youth is crucial to the nation’s economic competitiveness, especially in a global market increasingly predicated on knowledge, innovation and creative problem solving.

To produce more engineers, scientists and high-tech manufacturing professionals would require, among other things, rebranding the image of what these careers are and their importance to the economy. For instance, there remains a societal stigma about manufacturing jobs – often misperceived as dirty, low-paying and unsafe – that is leading a younger generation to pursue careers in other industries, though the reality of manufacturing work is far different.

In fact, another study from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute found that only 35 percent of 1,000 surveyed Americans say they would encourage their children to pursue careers in manufacturing. Only 20 percent of survey respondents said they believe schools in their communities encourage students to pursue high-tech careers in manufacturing. And less than half of all respondents (49 percent) agreed that the school system provides exposure to skills required to pursue a career or job in manufacturing.

The Deloitte/Manufacturing Institute report concluded that Americans are frustrated with what they perceive as the educational system’s failure to emphasize manufacturing careers.

As a result, Americans have a low opinion about the quality of manufacturing education and training offered to students.

Indeed, even if the U.S. succeeds in attracting more students to STEM studies, the nation’s current education system continues to struggle to prepare students in these fields. The result is that America’s competitive advantage continues to decline.

“Given that more than two-thirds of STEM workers have at least a college degree and that demand for STEM workers and workers with STEM degrees continues to grow, the U.S. college and university system is a cornerstone of our STEM future,” according to an early-2012 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce, in consultation with the National Economic Council. “However, the U.S. is losing ground to other countries in important areas of education, specifically in creating opportunities for students to gain expertise in STEM skills. Improvements are required at all education levels, including post-secondary school, if the U.S. is to remain internationally competitive and continue to excel in preparing its workforce for an increasingly knowledge-intensive economy.”

A mid-2010 study by the National Academies warned of a precarious economic future unless changes are made to STEM education in the U.S. In Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited, the authors concluded that the nation’s competitive outlook has worsened since 2005, when the first Gathering Storm report issued a call to strengthen K-12 education. Despite occasional bright spots, the nation’s educational system has shown little sign of improvement, particularly in math and science, according to the report.

In its 2012-2013 Global Competitiveness Report, the World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. number 47 out of 144 economies for math and science education quality. In overall competitiveness in the world economy, the U.S. continued its decline for the fourth consecutive year, falling two places to number seven.

Although multiple factors contribute to economic success, improving education is essential to increasing innovation and competitiveness. In failing to do so, the widely reported skills deficiencies have major consequences not only for business success, but for the nation’s global competitiveness as well.



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  • January 29, 2013

    [...] is still high in the U.S., many companies­ — particularly manufacturing firms — are struggling to find qualified workers for skilled positions, primarily in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs. [...]

  • tom luther
    March 26, 2013

    blah blah blah.What employers want and what they reward are entirely different concepts. I have been hearing about STEM since the 1970′s. Yet engineers flee the field for management or sales at an astounding rate. I would restate the title as: STEM pay and benefits still insufficient to attract enough attention from government college attendees for 30 years and counting.

    They should juxtapose this article with the ones that claim excellent salaries and see if the readership can fathom the disconnected logic.

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