There’s no one magic solution to correcting the STEM skills gap, yet evidence points to the need for all stakeholders to address the education-to-employment pipeline’s critical intersection of building enrollment in post-secondary STEM education and aligning that education with industry needs.
While larger forces, like globalization and technology, will continue to alter the competitive landscape, the U.S. faces more workforce challenges ahead and on multiple domestic fronts. Exacerbating the deficiency in STEM skills among today’s hiring pool, manufacturing and other industries dependent on STEM-educated workers face a shrinking pool.
“The skilled workforce shortage is both a quality and quantity issue,” the National Association of Manufacturers’ (NAM) Jacey Wilkins recently told IMT Career Journal.
Wilkins, who serves as the director of communications for the Manufacturing Institute, the research arm of NAM, cited recent research by Deloitte LLP and the Manufacturing Institute that indicates significant shortages of skilled workers in production, engineering, and design.
While there is no silver bullet that will solve the problem, experts suggest that addressing certain issues can help improve both the quantity and quality of STEM-knowledgeable workers. Overall, the areas of focus lie at the critical intersection of building enrollment in post-secondary STEM education and aligning education with industry needs, which require the efforts of multiple stakeholders.
STEM STUDENT DISINTEREST, DEFECTION, AND ATTRITION
To increase the likelihood of talent supply being sufficient to meet talent demand in coming years, one area of focus is to increase the flow of STEM graduates from U.S. academic institutions. This is a multi-prong approach that needs to:
• Rebrand industry’s image. Due in part to culturally prescribed stereotypes and an outdated public perception of manual labor, youth are made to feel as though occupations in manufacturing and other STEM-heavy industries are to be avoided, Wilkins told IMT Career Journal, citing research that found only three out of 10 parents “would encourage their child to pursue a career in manufacturing.” Ultimately, industrial occupations require an image makeover — one that highlights the opportunities inherent to having an educational background in a STEM-related field and the importance of such work for the economy.
• Emphasize accessibility of education. A four‐year university degree is only one option for those seeking valuable STEM-related knowledge and skills. Community colleges, for examples, are “an integral part of our solutions to educate a world-class manufacturing workforce as they are accessible, affordable, and drivers of workforce training in communities,” Wilkins told IMT Career Journal. With relatively low tuition, wide dispersion through the country, convenient class times, and course offerings aimed at students from diverse high school backgrounds, community colleges and vocational schools lower the barriers to post-secondary education.
• Target the under-represented majority. Women fill nearly half of all jobs in the U.S. economy but hold less than a quarter of STEM jobs. Like women, most racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented among STEM workers, a noticeable exception being non-Hispanic Asians. Women and members of minority groups now constitute approximately 70 percent of college students while being underrepresented among students who receive undergraduate STEM degrees (approximately 45 percent). This “underrepresented majority” is a large potential source of STEM professionals.
• Retain matriculated students. Less than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree. Commonly cited reasons for abandoning STEM majors include uninspiring introductory courses, difficulty with the math required in introductory STEM, and, particularly for members of groups underrepresented in STEM fields, an unwelcoming atmosphere from faculty in STEM courses. Better teaching methods are needed to make courses more inspiring, to provide more help to students facing mathematical challenges, and to create a more communal atmosphere for STEM learners.
To produce 1 million more professionals needed to fill STEM jobs over the next decade, the U.S. will need to increase STEM-degree graduates by about 34 percent annually. Making clear to students about the advantages of a STEM education and career, while purposefully targeting young women and minorities to directly grow these worker populations, should help increase interest in STEM education and careers. Increasing the retention of STEM majors by 10 percent alone could generate 750,000 additional STEM degrees over the next decade.
ALIGNMENT OF EDUCATION WITH INDUSTRY NEEDS
Producing enough STEM-educated college graduates is one part of the problem; another is the mismatch between what is taught in post-secondary courses and the skills required by employers. As such, it not enough to increase the output of college and university graduates in STEM fields alone. Experts say it is equally important to understand what STEM skills are needed by companies as a means of designing curricula and job training around those needs.
“The world is experiencing an era of volatile and rapid transformation,” Manpower Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Joerres said in a call for education overhaul in 2011. “This is exacerbating the disconnect between learning and industry as education cannot keep up.”
Approximately 84 percent of manufacturers believe the nation’s school system is doing an inadequate job of preparing students for the workplace, according to the Manufacturing Institute. In a separate report from the institute, respondents reported that the national education curriculum is not producing workers with even the basic skills they need.
To address the problem, the Manufacturing Institute has laid out key principles for education reform, including moving to competency-based education, establishing and expanding industry-education partnerships, expanding successful youth development programs, and focused education programs on specific technologies and manufacturing principles like “lean” to reduce education costs.
Specific recommendations include:
- Introduce more technology-enabled secondary and post-secondary education, including computer-based instruction personalized for individual students
- Integrate “nationally portable, industry-recognized skills certification” into high school and community college degree programs
- Establish competency-based education pathways in high school and college that are built on standards, performance, and proficiency, rather than seat time
- Accelerate learning and compressing traditional secondary and post-secondary schedules through early-college and dual-enrollment models.
Meanwhile, while the Manufacturing Institute advocates more mentorships and internships, Manpower further recommends that trade associations, businesses, and governments should partner up on knowledge sharing to ensure students are sufficiently prepared to enter the workforce and are armed with the specific skills employers seek.
“The big solution to the problem is that industry and educational institutions must work together more constructively and governments need to target funding in the right areas,” Joerres said. “Companies, governments, and educators all have responsibility to get this right.”
In the meantime, with the world changing so rapidly, skill sets will become obsolete more quickly. This will raise the importance of both “soft skills” and on-the-job training.
“The skill most in demand in the current manufacturing workforce is problem-solving — the ability to think critically, be adaptable, and convert challenges into opportunities for improvement and growth,” Wilkins told IMT Career Journal. “These ‘soft skills’ are as important as technical skills.”
For this reason, Manpower recommends that more emphasis should be placed on high-quality problem-solving education and taking “on-the-job” degrees, making these qualifications more aligned to the needs of employers.
“Many young people come out of the education system with skills which are not aligned with the needs of the world of work,” Joerres said. “Learning on the job is a solution to reconnect the education world and the world of work, and enables young people to start building a constructive career path.”
Improving on-the-job training and encouraging a return to the classroom are just two facets or pathways to improving the STEM skills of the future U.S. workforce. In the entire workforce development pipeline — including higher education and business and public-private partnerships — the critical intersection of addressing STEM skills deficiencies and fulfilling industry needs is complex. As such, the education-to-employment system requires a systematic overhaul to ensure a more competitive workforce.
“The entire system needs to be re-evaluated,” Joerres noted. “Changes would be significant, but are necessary to ensure industry, governments, and educators are to effectively align education and training with business needs.”