The evolving economy is generating a need for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) students, graduates and employees. The increased demand for individuals is driven both by the types of industries which are growing and changes in virtually every sector of the economy (such as greater incorporation of technology). Texas is particularly in need of persons with these types of training given the state’s strong energy and technology segments.
Despite the emphasis on STEM in recent years, the numbers of young people focusing in such areas are not growing as quickly as needed for optimal performance down the road. Females, in particular, tend to opt out of STEM; it would behoove us to figure out why, whether due to cultural biases, the way we tend to present STEM topics, or something else.
Interestingly, there are articles and studies out there that claim the STEM shortage is a myth or that STEM isn’t an issue worthy of special emphasis. I respectfully disagree. Many of the fastest-growing occupations require STEM, and the need for STEM knowledge is expanding in virtually every field. Moreover, many types of jobs we cannot even conceive of sitting here today will be filled by those trained in the sciences, technology, and math. (It wasn’t so long ago that you could count the number of actual and projected computers in the world on one hand; now, related industries support millions of jobs.)
Clearly, persons with both a STEM background and a broader world view (whether through personality, background, education, or some combination thereof) may be the best fits for certain types of jobs. Also, blending STEM training with other experiences can be beneficial. For example, any engineer working on product development can benefit from the ability to understand customer issues and motivators. On the other hand, a STEM-intensive background can open doors into a variety of fields ranging from sales to management and beyond.
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Although the long-term pattern indicates growth at a rate faster than non-STEM fields, cycles are inevitable. For one thing, some of the industries which rely on STEM are inherently cyclical (such as energy, aviation, electronics, and others). While the US workforce has become increasingly mobile over time, there is naturally still some resistance. Also, a person with STEM training who has specialized in one industry is not necessarily ideal for another. Such mismatches are certainly not the same thing as a glut, however, and should not be used as evidence that we don’t need to focus on ensuring we get enough kids interested in sciences and technology.
Another interesting argument used to argue against the STEM shortage is the fact that many STEM graduates are working in other fields. The evidence that STEM grads find multiple pathways into other types of jobs is surely good news and reason young people should seriously consider such training.
One simple way to gauge the need for STEM graduates (or any other) is to look at salaries. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains a database of wage information for some 800 occupations. If you sort this data by average annual earnings, you’ll find that the top salaries are very concentrated in STEM fields. Doctors of a number of specialties top the list; while there is obviously substantial additional education for such professions compared to the average, STEM is at the heart of it. Engineers are also strongly represented in the database, and some of the highest starting salaries at present are for engineering majors. While salaries may not be escalating all that rapidly in any field (as we come off the recent recession), the fact remains that STEM fields have long been well paying and are more than holding their own.
Fixing the problem will require a multifaceted approach. First of all, there are issues which must be resolved in K-12 schools. Early education aimed at engaging the interest of students in the sciences can increase the probability that they will pursue additional education in such fields. There are plenty of simple, cool science experiments and amazing things about numbers and how they work, and it is crucial that curricula (and standardized testing requirements and schedules) leave room for exploration, experimentation, and other activities to expose young students to the fascinating aspects of STEM fields. Another issue is that far too many students receiving high school diplomas are unprepared for college-level work, particularly in STEM classes. Remedial math coursework is all too often needed, despite the fact that it is far more costly to teach in the college setting. Certainly, the recent move in Texas to define Algebra II as “advanced math” to be taken by a select few is a massive step in the wrong direction which can’t help but limit the opportunities for many students (including those who choose technical training over a college degree) and the economy as a whole. Also, higher education (both university and technical) institutions should work to align with the needs of the workplace to ensure that graduates have the training they need to flourish in STEM-related occupations.
Ultimately, market mechanisms will play a definite role in solving the shortfall problem. As students eye high starting salaries for those with STEM degrees, they become more likely to pursue such majors. While money isn’t everything on the job, it is a primary consideration for most of us. Even with the allure of nice salaries, however, it is critical that we turn out high school graduates who are open to these possibilities and academically prepared for the coursework and/or training required.