The U.S. Needs to Prepare Workers for STEM Jobs

Why retooling the American workforce can help technology unleash the U.S. economy.

By Rick Lazio and Harold Ford Jr. June 6, 2019

American businesses face a serious problem, with outsize impact on our country’s economy. The problem isn’t regulations, it’s jobs. And not their creation, but rather the inability to fill a large category of them. It’ll take federal and state governments, schools and companies to help solve the riddle. Daunting, yes, but the hard work is already being done and just needs more support.

LazioThis is important as these vacant jobs could pump billions into the U.S. economy, but our workforce lacks the skills needed to take on the roles.

Consider Amazon’s latest hunt for a second headquarters. Houston, which is currently the fourth-largest city in the United States by population, was passed over by the tech giant.

“Their message to Houston was that we didn’t have the depth of tech talent,” said Bob Harvey, CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, in the Houston Chronicle.

A city that constantly ranks in our country’s top five for job and population growth missed a chance to house one of the world’s largest and most innovative companies, stemming from its soft tech talent base—which currently ranks 32nd in the U.S.

That’s just one example of why we need a skilled workforce for the future, but getting there requires an effective support system.

Let’s size up the challenge: Nearly 60 percent of employers struggle to fill job vacancies within 12 weeks, and careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are at the heart of the skills gap in America. The U.S. currently has millions of unfilled STEM jobs, and the Trump administration recently released its five-year plan to boost STEM education ito prepare for the nearly 3.5 million STEM jobs that need to be staffed by 2025.

This comes at a time when, even as the unemployment rate continues to fall, millions remain jobless and wages have declined.

However, America has a path forward. Through policy initiatives that strengthen STEM education, as well as training programs to give workers skills that align with technological advancement, politicians and community leaders have an opportunity and a responsibility to pivot this issue into economic growth and to keep the workforce developing faster than the pace of innovation itself.

‘Programming’ the Workforce

Ford Nasdaq vice chairman Bruce E. Aust wrote in April 2018 that there were “500,000 well-paying computing jobs currently unfilled in the U.S. By 2020, there will be one million more computing jobs nationally than there will be graduates to fill them, resulting in a $500 billion opportunity gap.”

That said, workers simply can’t keep up with the current technology revolution. A study from the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University found that the U.S. lost approximately 5.6 million jobs in the manufacturing sector from 2000 to 2010, with nearly 85 percent of those roles impacted by technological change. According to the National Skills Coalition, middle-skill jobs in sectors such as advanced manufacturing, computer technology and health care account for approximately 53 percent of America’s labor market; however, only 43 percent of middle-skill workers are trained to fill those roles.

Retraining programs have been pitched as a way to address the growing number of vacant U.S. STEM jobs, by giving workers the skills to thrive while earning a competitive wage. With 80 percent of employees believing they can be reskilled, the time to leverage this competitive spirit is now.

Community colleges in particular have pushed STEM-focused training programs for long-term success and immediate labor market outcomes. These “skill development programs” train workers in a wide array of fields and specific levels of expertise. Examples include:

  • The Siemens Foundation’s STEM Middle-Skill Initiative: a “workforce development program to help close the opportunity gap for young adults in STEM middle-skill careers.”
  • General Electric’s Developing Futures program and Developing Skills program have helped 14- to 24-year-old students “become productive citizens by providing access to learning experiences necessary for the workforce of tomorrow.”
  • Chevron is extending available STEM opportunities to those in rural communities by creating an initiative to retrain displaced workers in Appalachia.

How Policy Can Spark Growth

Beyond schools and the private sector, policymakers have rallied behind the cause by providing funds for workforce training programs and other incentives to third parties, such as local chambers of commerce.

Legislators also back the idea of retraining programs, with U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Ben Sasse, R-Neb., introducing the Skills Investment Act of 2018. The bill would “expand tax-advantaged savings accounts to cover skills training, career-related learning and professional development,” said Forbes contributor Rich Blake.

At the state level, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb used his most recent State of the State speech to tout career and apprenticeship options for workers, as well as Indiana’s 8 percent growth of STEM-related bachelor’s degree recipients. Holcomb also announced his administration’s dedication to increasing teacher pay and reskilling the state’s adult population through the Workforce Ready Grant program and the Employer Training Grant program.

Such modern policies can unite politicians from both sides of the aisle to increase prospects for workers. The payoff—or consequences, really—should remain clear: If we fail to train our workforce, the economy will suffer.

Focusing on results-driven STEM education and training is the key to building and sustaining a growing economy and a thriving workforce. That means not only ensuring that students have the tools to succeed in the STEM-focused classroom, but also that career men and women who have worked decades in their respective fields have the consistent training to adapt to inevitable industrial changes.

Technology often operates like a runaway train, constantly moving without pause. There’s no telling where the ride can take the American economy, but it’s up to us to help our workforce jump aboard.

Rick Lazio is a former Republican U.S. representative from New York, serving in Congress from 1993 to 2001, and is the senior vice president for alliantgroup, a national tax consulting services firm. Harold Ford Jr. is a former five-term Democratic congressman from Tennessee (1997-2007) and a member of alliantgroup’s Strategic Advisory Board. 


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