STEM Employment: Possibilities and Challenges

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In the last decade, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields have become an increasingly important part of the U.S. economy. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics describes STEM occupations — those that typically involve determining how things work and solving problems with the use of computers and scientific tools — as the “jobs of tomorrow.” It projects that these types of jobs will grow by more than 9 million between 2012 and 2022, with average wages of $85,570. That is nearly double the average salary of $47,000 for all occupations, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

These statistics are promising in a global market where STEM innovation fuels competitiveness and in a U.S. economy that has suffered from stagnant wages. However, compelling data show that millions of STEM jobs may go unfilled as early as 2018. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “60 percent of U.S. employers are having difficulties finding qualified workers to fill vacancies at their companies.” These difficulties have been described by some as a “STEM talent gap” in the United States — i.e., a reported shortage of U.S. workers trained in the core STEM competencies to successfully fill open positions.

Multiple factors drive this talent gap. The nonprofit STEM Education Coalition points to “baby boomers” — the nearly 10,000 individuals per day who, according to AARP, reach the ages of 51 to 69 — retiring or leaving their jobs, often taking STEM-related knowledge and experience with them, as part of the issue. As older workers depart, other factors, including a lack of K-12 preparation and of college students pursuing STEM degrees, adversely affect the flow of qualified individuals into the STEM workforce.

Data from the National Math and Science Initiative show that in 2013, only 44 percent of U.S. high school students were ready for college-level math, and just 36 percent of those students were ready for college-level science. Perhaps it is because of this problem that a smaller number of students pursue STEM degrees. For every 100 undergrads, only 13 earn a degree in a STEM-related field, according to the National Center
for Education.

Furthermore, many STEM graduates don’t end up working in their field for a variety of reasons, many of which are unclear. Indeed, the U.S. Accountability Office finds that many students with STEM degrees from two- and four-year colleges do not pursue STEM professions.

In light of the need to create and sustain a more robust STEM workforce, the federal government has dedicated funds for STEM education and workforce preparation programs with a particular focus on apprenticeships — paid, on-the-job training for a specific trade or profession. Federal research shows that every dollar employers invest in an apprenticeship generates $1.47 in increased productivity. Additionally, more than 90 percent of apprentices find employment after completing their apprenticeships, with an average starting salary of $50,000 per year.

In 2015, President Barack Obama announced the allocation of $175 million in federal American Apprenticeship grants to 46 grantees who develop or expand apprenticeships in key industries. Also, in partnership with 20 U.S. cities, the White House and the Labor Department launched a $100 million initiative, called TechHire, to ensure that more Americans are rapidly trained and move into well-paying technology jobs.

LaunchCode apprentices receive training at no cost to prepare them for jobs in technology.
LaunchCode apprentices receive training at no cost to prepare them for jobs in technology.

“Job-driven apprenticeships are among the surest pathways to provide American workers from all backgrounds with the skills and knowledge they need to acquire good-paying jobs and grow the economy,” a White House press release states.

One organization lauded by Obama as a national model for technology apprenticeships is the nonprofit LaunchCode, based in St. Louis, Mo. It connects companies to talented workers who might otherwise be overlooked because they, like 80 percent of LaunchCode candidates, do not have technical degrees.

“Many companies are hesitant to change the way they hire people for technical positions, even when their current process is not meeting their demand for talent,” says LaunchCode Executive Director Brendan Lind.

At LaunchCode, interested candidates submit an application, are interviewed, and either receive feedback regarding improvements they need to make or proceed directly to a matching process where they are connected with paid apprenticeships. The organization reports that 90 percent of its apprentices convert to permanent employment within three months and, on average, double their previous salaries.

“We have shown that people from a wide variety of backgrounds can become talented [computer] programmers when given the right resources and a chance to prove themselves,” says Lind.

From left to right: LaunchCode apprentice and MasterCard developer LaShana Lewis, President Barack Obama, LaunchCode co-founder Jim McKelvey, and LaunchCode Executive Director Brendan Lind at the National League of Cities annual Congressional City Conference in Washington, D.C., in March 2015
From left to right: LaunchCode apprentice and MasterCard developer LaShana Lewis, President Barack Obama, LaunchCode co-founder Jim McKelvey, and LaunchCode Executive Director Brendan Lind at the National League of Cities annual Congressional City Conference in Washington, D.C., in March 2015

Bridging the STEM talent gap is only one aspect of the STEM employment equation. Another challenge is the lack of diversity in STEM fields. Myriad statistics show minorities — including African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and individuals with disabilities — are grossly underrepresented in STEM compared with their representation in the general population. Data from Change the Equation, a coalition dedicated to ensuring every young person is STEM literate, show that the STEM workforce is no more diverse now than it was 15 years ago. In addition to individual choices and interests, socioeconomic influences, and implicit biases, issues with STEM education opportunities contribute to the problem.

“Lack of access to educational opportunities is a major hurdle for candidates landing [technology] jobs,” Lind says. “LaunchCode is committed to making computer science education accessible to all, [either] free or at reduced costs and at a variety of times and locations.”

Citing research from global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, Janet Bandows Koster, executive

Janet Bandows Koster
Janet Bandows Koster

director and CEO of the Association of Women in Science, highlights the economic upside of a diverse workforce. “Gender-diverse companies are 15 percent more likely to outperform their peers, and ethnically diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to do the same,” she says.

In a 2016 “Dear Colleague” letter, Director of the National Science Foundation France Córdova

advocates a similar view: “Diversity of thought, perspective, and experience is essential to achieving excellence in 21st century science and engineering research and education.”

Members of the Association of Women in Science
Members of the Association of Women in Science

Considering the importance of diversity, Koster offers a big picture view of STEM employment.

“STEM careers provide incredible opportunities to explore interesting and relevant questions and creatively solve a range of problems,” she says. “[They] are the kinds of jobs that should be ideal for anyone with an inquiring mind. The fact that the current infrastructure makes that less desirable [for some] means that changes need to be made. Otherwise, the nation will be left behind.”●

Kelley R. Taylor is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.