Science,Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) ﬁelds have become increasingly central to U.S. economic competitiveness and growth. Long-term strategies to maintain and increase living standards and promote opportunity will require coordinated efforts among public, private, and not-for-proﬁt entities to promote innovation and to prepare an adequate supply of qualiﬁed workers for employment in STEM ﬁelds.
Our nation’s economic future depends upon improving the pipeline into the STEM ﬁelds forsub-baccalaureate students as well as BA and advanced degree holders, for youth moving toward employment and adults already in the workforce, for those already employed in STEM ﬁelds and those who would like to change careers to secure better employment and earnings.
The STEM education and workforce challenge is multi-faceted. Many students never make it into the STEM pipeline because of inadequate preparation in math and science or poor teacher quality in their K-12 systems. Of the 2005 high school graduates who took the ACT test, for example, only 41 percent achieved the College Readiness Benchmark in mathematics and 26 percent achieved that benchmark in science (ACT 2006).
Calls for improving STEM education and the number of graduates in STEM fields are well known. Publications and reports such as Science for All Americans (AmericanAssociation for the Advancement of Science, 1990), Technically Speaking (National Academy of Engineering, 2002), The World is Flat (Friedman, 2005), Rising Above the Gathering Storm (Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century, 2007), National Action Plan for Addressing the Critical Needs of the U.S. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education System (National Science Board, 2007), and Engineering in K-12 Education (National Academy of Engineering, 2009) have focused national attention on the need for STEM education and its relevance to the nation's global competitiveness.
Many who are academically qualified for postsecondary studies in science and math fields at both the two- and four-year levels, don’t pursue those programs: They might be dissuaded by disappointing postsecondary experiences, high tuition or demanding curricula and courses of study, relatively low salaries in STEM fields compared to other professions, or the lack of role models with whom they can identify (American Association of State Colleges and Universities 2005).
Whatever the reasons, trends in undergraduate and graduate enrollment in the biological, engineering, and physical sciences are troubling, as modest growth in STEM field degree graduates is being eclipsed by more dramatic growth in graduates from non-STEM programs (U.S. Government Accountability Office 2005).
The low engagement with STEM-related learning is particularly acute among minority,female, and lower-income students, who comprise a growing proportion of the total college-going public. In the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress for twelfth grade students, about three out of four white and Asian students scored at or above basic level (which is far below proficient) on the math assessment, while fewer than half of Hispanics and under a third of African American students attained that level (National Science Foundation2005).
Preparation for STEM success is one concern. Equally important are trends in the overall supply and employment of STEM ﬁeld workers. A large segment of the existing STEM workforce is approaching retirement age with the rest of baby boomers. Women appear to choose non-STEM employment opportunities with increasing frequency. According to industry data, for example, the percentage of women in the IT workforce declined from a high of 41 percent in1996 to 32 percent in 2004, even as the percentage of women in the workforce as a whole remained steady at around 46 percent during that period (InformationTechnology Association of America 2005).
In addition,the reliance on immigrants for meeting employer demand for skilled STEM workers has become increasingly problematic. In the wake of September 11, foreign immigration has become more complicated and visa processes have been tightened. In addition, as other countries expand their STEM-related economic growth, somewho might have sought employment opportunity in the U.S. are able to find good jobs closer to home.
The STEM workforce pipeline challenge is not just about the supply and quality of baccalaureate and advanced degree earners. A large percentage of the workforce in industries and occupations that rely on STEM knowledge and skills are technicians and others who enter and advance in their ﬁeld through sub-baccalaureate degrees and certiﬁcates or through workplace training.
Competitiveness in STEM ﬁelds requires a focus on the skills and the supply of those involved in STEM ﬁelds from the most complex research and development and leadership positions to production, repair, marketing, sales and other jobs that require competencies built upon math, science, engineering, and technology knowledge.
Getting more Americans ready for, interested in, and sufficiently skilled to be productive in STEM-related jobs will require attention to segments of the workforce that are often overlooked in STEM discussions: incumbent workers who need skill upgrading, dislocated workers who are trying to ﬁnd new jobs in industries with a future, and individuals from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEMﬁelds.