STEM Challenges and the American Workforce

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.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

A couple years ago, I helped my cousin to apply for a STEM grant from the National Science Foundation in order to create a sequel to his great “Flatlands” video – which teaches kids math in a fun way, ultimately to encourage them to pursue education and careers related to STEM.

What are other creative ways to educate and create awareness?

Stan Duncan

Raytheon is front and center regarding U.S. STEM initiatives. “We all have a stake in helping our nation secure the pipeline of STEM talent for the future,” said William H. Swanson, Chairman and CEO of Raytheon Company and Chairman of the Business-Higher Education Forum. “

David Kuehn

Historically science and engineering has been an area of opportunity for foreign born and first generation college graduates, perhaps, because merit is easier to measure or more highly valued than in professions that rely more on personal knowledge or social standing.

Keith Moore

If YouTube was around during Martin Luther King Jr’s era, I believe he would have promoted STEM for minority students, as a way to help us bring down future debt we now are strapped with because in some measure the build up of correction facilities that are now competing with our Historically Black Colleges and Universities for admission.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr Day….every day to keep the Dream Alive.


Stephen W. Ramsden

I operate the largest solar astronomy outreach prgram in the world on my days off from Air Traffic Controlling in Atlanta. http://www.charliebates.org for details.

Sadly, my agency views this as a useless “waste of taxpayer dollars” program that they dont really have to support even though it is covered in a government wide order (FAA 1250.2A) . Locally, management constantly creates new interpretations and redefines the requirements depending on who is asking so that it is impossible to participate in this program. One manager in particular (in a high ranking position) has made it his goal to prevent me from participation to “show me who the boss is”, etc… You know the typical government middle manager and his kingdom… His actual quote was, “you just dont like to be told no”…and he’s right when it comes to our students and this nations scientific future.

It has been almost impossible to relate to my employer that this is an important STEM initiative, or even that STEM outreach is of any value, and that they should try and standardize our participation in it as government employees.

Can anyone offer guidance or help or maybe point me to someone who feels that this program is worth supporting? I would love to have someone in my corner at work that understands the importance of STEM education in our country… I have gotten no where with the people in my agency that are supposed to manage this program as they are all hesitant to stand up and do anything for fear of losing their position or whatever.