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Panelists Cite Education As Critical to Meeting Demand for STEM-Capable Workforce

The number of U.S. workers who use science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) as part of their jobs has been steadily increasing, according to a recent report. Ensuring there are enough qualified workers and better participating of under-represented groups in STEM-related jobs will take providing better pre-college education, increased access to college education and STEM training, and improved tracking of science and engineering workers, experts told a AAAS audience.

More than a third of STEM workers hold a science or engineering degree, and those skills are even more valuable now to workers, since they are more transferrable, said Kelvin Droegemeier, vice chairman of the National Science Board and vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma. Instead of having a "pipeline" of people who major in science and engineering and then go into jobs with the same title, there's more a series of pathways to those jobs, he said. Having STEM skills gives people the ability to work in different STEM jobs during their careers. Also, while STEM degrees do "unlock career pathways," Droegemeier said, "we need to think about developing a STEM-capable workforce," including people who learn some STEM skills without necessarily earning a degree.


The NSB report was released 21 April.

Droegemeier moderated a panel discussion about the state of the STEM workforce based on a new National Science Board (NSB) report at the 40th AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy, held 30 April and 1 May in Washington D.C.

The NSB report found that almost 6 million U.S. workers hold a science or engineering job, and about 19.5 million have at least a bachelor's degree in a science or engineering field. However, 26 million out of a total of 142.5 million U.S. workers (about 20 percent) reported their job requires significant STEM expertise. That number is expected to increase as new fields are invented and the U.S. economy evolves. Some STEM-related jobs may decline, however, as automation replaces people. The report also concludes that the availability of jobs and whether there is a shortage of qualified workers or too many varies depending on the specialty and geographic location.

Tom Rudin, director of the Board on Higher Education and Workforce at the National Academies of Science, said opening up access to higher education is a key to increasing the STEM workforce. Half of all undergraduates are in a community college, he said, but those students are also more likely to drop out before transferring or completing a four-year-degree.

"If we can strengthen the community college system, link community colleges more effectively with four-year institutions and with businesses, we can go a long way towards strengthening STEM pathways…and broadening participation," Rudin said. Non-academic barriers to education, such as difficulties in applying for financial aid, getting aid money in time to buy books, and balancing work and family obligations with academics are also problems that colleges and others could help students overcome, Rudin said.

5.4 Million

U.S. workers hold a science or engineering job

19.5 Million

U.S. workers have at least a bachelor's in a science or engineering field

26 Million

out of 142.5 million U.S. workers (about 20%) say their job requires STEM expertise

National Science Board

But before students can earn a college degree necessary to qualify for most science or engineering jobs, they must have an early foundation in mathematics, said Donna Ginther, a professor of economics at the University of Kansas. She cited studies that show that students who require remedial math in college are less likely to complete their college degree. "If you think about STEM and the demands for numeracy and mathematics in those fields, emphasizing math in K-12 will give you a lot of bang for your buck," Ginther said.

Better pre-college education would also help increase representation of minorities in STEM jobs. "There are differential probabilities of graduating from high school by race, which affects the probability of going to college," Ginther said.

The increasing cost of college education and graduate degrees is also more of a problem for underrepresented students in STEM, said Julia Kent, director of best practices at the Council of Graduate Schools. "We know that financial hurdles can be a huge obstacle to underrepresented students in STEM fields, and those barriers are increasing" for graduate students, she said.

Having a STEM degree makes employees more valuable and improves the nation's competitiveness, even if they don't work in a STEM job, the NSB report also concluded. U.S. Census Bureau data report that about half of people with STEM degrees work in non-STEM jobs, although many reported their degree is related to their work. Having additional data that tracks workers 10 or 15 years after they earn an undergraduate degree would help labor economists understand workers' decisions, since people now tend to hold many different jobs over the course of evolving careers, Ginther said.

"We know that financial hurdles can be a huge obstacle to underrepresented students in STEM fields, and those barriers are increasing" for graduate students."

Julia Kent

Long-term tracking of alumni would also help universities and graduate schools update their programs to make sure they are giving their students the skills they will need to work in STEM fields. "It's difficult to make program improvements if you don't know where your students end up," Kent said. "It's also hard if the faculty are tied to the idea that all Ph.D. students will end up teaching."

One audience member told the panel that while much of the discussion focused on non-academic barriers to people earning science and engineering degrees, it was worth noting that there are still plenty of barriers presented by science and engineering curricula and the ways the subjects are taught. "I'm advocating that we change that mindset from…having gatekeeper courses to gateway courses," said Charles Riordan, vice provost for research at the University of Delaware. "I'm not a chemist because of the courses I took in my freshman and sophomore year — I became one in spite of those classes," he said. 


[Credit for associated teaser image: AIDSVaccine/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]


Kathleen O'Neil