Employers Are Frustrated by These 5 STEM Talent Hurdles

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer July 30, 2018

​The lack of qualified workers for jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) can be attributed to critical challenges in five areas: skills, biases, education, geography and demographics, according to a new research report.

State of STEM, produced by STEMconnector, a Washington, D.C.-based professional services firm committed to increasing the number of STEM-ready workers, classifies the talent gaps and makes recommendations to address them.

The report was created from interviews and focus groups with stakeholders, and from literature reviews and data analysis.

"We realized that there is no single STEM talent gap, but rather several layers of underlying challenges that produce what is usually perceived as a single gap," said Erin White, senior director of product development and research at STEMconnector and author of the report.

"These gaps work together to produce the overall gap in opportunity faced by students and job seekers, as well as the companies seeking to hire them," she said.

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Those gaps fall under:

Skills. Not enough young people are developing the fundamental skills needed to succeed in STEM careers. "The overall STEM competency of the average American K-12 student does not meet the demand for overall STEM skills in the U.S. labor market," White said. Even jobs not traditionally considered STEM positions increasingly require fluency in STEM skills, she said. Moreover, she said, employers are not always clearly defining the skills they really need.

Biases. Students and the adults around them, including school counselors and teachers, hold incorrect biases about the aptitude or traits young people must have to belong and thrive in STEM fields. "Unfortunately, many times students in the academic middle—low B and C and even D students—are not encouraged to consider a STEM career," said Kathleen Martinez, senior director, national strategic relationships at global energy firm BP. "They are often discouraged and overlooked by teachers, STEM programs and even potential employers."

Education. The knowledge economy based on intellectual capital and dependent on technology requires credentials beyond a high-school diploma, but not enough young people are earning those credentials, nor are they earning credentials that are relevant to industry needs, STEMconnector found. "By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the economy will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school," White said. "By some estimates, at the current production rate of students with postsecondary education credentials, the United States will fall short by 5 million workers. This gap is even more pronounced in many STEM fields, where over 90 percent of all STEM occupations require at least some postsecondary education or training, yet only 35 percent of Americans hold a bachelor's degree or higher."

Geography. Access to jobs in high-growth and well-paid fields often depends on geography. Hubs of economic growth may be far from large concentrations of qualified job seekers, or they may be far from population centers. "While some regions of the country are experiencing either a dearth of jobs or a decline in population, others have seen a tremendous growth in STEM- related jobs and companies," White said. "Those areas face a different geographic challenge in that they may have to import talent from other regions because the local populace is not equipped with the skills and knowledge to be viable candidates for these roles."

Jill Zullo, vice president, bioindustrials at Cargill, based in Wayzata, Minn., defined the STEM talent challenges in rural areas as having "a warm-body problem—having enough folks applying for jobs, and a right-body problem—having job seekers with the right skills."

Demographics. There is a well-documented, disproportionate lack of participation in STEM education and careers among people of color and women, despite a significant focus on diversity and inclusion. "The gender dimension shows a real problem," said Nicole Smith, a research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in Washington, D.C. "There are a lot of young women graduating with STEM degrees who then choose to pursue other fields due to the inflexibility of the job or the environment of the workplace. Employers aren't always trying to figure out how to improve that environment."   

Recommendations for Employers

The report recommends that employers address STEM talent deficits in the following ways:

Embed experiential learning opportunities—such as paid internships and apprenticeships—throughout K-12 and postsecondary education to teach fundamental STEM skills. For example, K-12 schools can partner with local businesses to make paid internships a standard part of high-school curricula for all students.

"Hands-on, project-based learning is the most effective way to learn STEM skills or anything else," said Rita W. Bartczak, the president of Chestnut Hill Advisors, a Boston-based marketing strategy and research consultancy. "Experiential learning with an element of competition trumps classroom learning anytime."

Bartczak noted that making this investment won't always be easy. "There will be obstacles to overcome," she said. "When we interviewed faculty across the country about project-based learning, we heard from some who were really excited to get started and others who see it as a trade-off with the research they want to do as professors. The biggest obstacles we heard were the required investment in time and funding."

Partner with schools to equip educators with training and resources so they can effectively develop STEM skills in students. This includes co-developing curricula in markets where talent is hard to come by, and sharing job needs and projections with education partners.

"The rate of change in technology developments far exceeds the capability of faculty to update curriculum," Smith said. "Schools just can't keep up. But some higher-ed institutions are dealing with that by finding ways to create partnerships with local employers to help develop curriculum in exchange for a ready and qualified talent pipeline."

At Des Moines Community College, the school president links up with several local employers to design curricula around the skills and competencies those employers need, said Alexander Alonso, SHRM-SCP, chief knowledge officer at the Society for Human Resource Management. "We're not only seeing development of curricula to meet the needs of local employers, but also the repurposing of that curricula to build modular skill sets that can then be applied to a variety of STEM roles," he said.



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