Science, Math Programs Designed to Build Needed Workforce Skills

By Theresa Minton-Eversole Nov 16, 2011
The lack of jobs and income disparities are among the issues that have driven many people to join Occupy Wall Street-style protests in many parts of the U.S. While many people interviewed during these protests have cited the lack of any kind of job in the current market, employers are stating loud and clear that they cannot find employees with the right skills and experience to fill white- and blue-collar jobs in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

For example, more than half (52 percent) of employers have trouble finding employees for specific job openings, according to a poll released Nov. 7, 2011, by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). The top job categories employers reported that they have a “somewhat” difficult or “very” difficult time filling are in high-skilled areas, including engineers (89 percent), high-skilled medical (86 percent), high-skilled technical (85 percent) and scientists (83 percent), which are critical to U.S. growth, job creation and innovation.

Likewise, an annualsurvey by ManpowerGroup reported that the hardest jobs to fill in the U.S. are skilled trades, engineers, IT staff, teachers, and machinists and machine operators. These positions often require STEM skills that applicants don’t possess. The ManpowerGroup survey also revealed that 52 percent of U.S. employers are experiencing difficulty filling mission-critical positions, up from 14 percent in 2010.

Collaborative Partnerships

The SHRM survey indicated that the U.S. needs a STEM talent pipeline, which requires:

Encouraging more U.S. students to study and pursue careers in these key technical fields.

Reforming immigration policies so that foreign-born STEM professionals, especially those graduating from a U.S. university, can stay and contribute to the U.S.

There are synergies among employers, educators, government officials and thought leaders that are aligning U.S. workforce capabilities more closely with the needs of employers, particularly evident in STEM education initiatives and events across the country.

One such initiative, the USA Science & Engineering Festival, will be hosted by Lockheed Martin April 28-29, 2012, in Washington, D.C. The festival—a grassroots collaboration of more than 500 U.S. leading science and engineering organizations—is the country’s only national science festival. It was developed to increase public awareness of the importance of science and to encourage youth to pursue careers in science and engineering by celebrating science in much the same way as Americans celebrate Hollywood celebrities, professional athletes and pop stars.

The event is to feature several exhibits, performances and appearances by companies that need more STEM graduates for their future workforces, reported Lockheed Martin. Scientists and other organizations are scheduled to participate in order to give students and adults the opportunity to explore careers in areas such as renewable energy, robotics, space tourism, nanotechnology, virtual reality, clean technology, genetics and education. For more information about the event, visit the festival website.

Festival organizers are looking to make the 2012 event a national experience through several satellite events that will be held across the country by student clubs, schools, universities, community organizations and companies.

For example, prior to the event, middle and high school students in the greater Washington, D.C., area will have a chance to meet with more than 125 of the nation’s most dynamic and influential scientists and engineers through the Nifty Fifty program, sponsored by AT&T. In addition, the Lunch with a Laureate program is a rare opportunity for a small group of middle and high school students to engage in informal conversations with 15 Nobel Prize-winning scientists during a brown bag lunch at which they’ll learn about scientific discoveries, hear about the trials and tribulations of fast-paced research, and find out what makes a Nobel Laureate tick. For a listing of events or to find out how to host an event, visit the satellite event area of the website.

“Our future as a nation—the new ideas, programs and scientific technological innovations that have become increasingly important in growing our economy and in moving us forward with international competitors—depends on how well we prepare our students for careers in the science, technology, engineering and math fields,” said Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “At the USA Science & Engineering Festival, students will have an amazing opportunity to engage directly with scientists and engineers from around the country, exploring interesting careers in STEM and discovering new areas that fascinate them.”

Overcoming STEM-Field Misperceptions

A report delivered to Congress titled Rising Above the Gathering Storm found that the United States ranks 48th in STEM education. The U.S. Department of Labor has identified U.S. students’ lackluster performance in math and science, as well as an increase in global competition, as a new economic and technological vulnerability comparable to a military or terrorist threat.

Some startling facts from the report:

In 2009, 51 percent of U.S. patents were awarded to non-U.S. companies.

Eight of the 10 global companies with the largest research and development (R&D) budgets have established R&D facilities in China, India or both.

In 2000, for the first time, the number of foreign students studying the physical sciences and engineering in U.S. graduate schools surpassed the number of U.S. students.

Federal funding of research in the physical sciences as a fraction of gross domestic product fell by 54 percent in the 25 years after 1970. The decline in engineering funding was 51 percent.

According to the ACT College Readiness report, 78 percent of high school graduates did not meet the readiness benchmark levels for one or more entry-level college courses in mathematics, science, reading and English.

Part of the problem is that so many students believe that they cannot handle the education requirements of attaining these degrees. According to a recent New York Times article, many believe that earning a degree in a STEM-related field has become increasingly difficult because the material is dry and hard to get through. The article cited studies from the University of California at Los Angeles that have found that the roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to receive a degree. That number increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included.

“Addressing America’s competitiveness challenge is an undertaking that will require many years if not decades,” said Norman Augustine, chair of the Rising Above the Gathering Storm committee and retired chair and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp.

Theresa Minton-Eversole is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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