CEOs of the companies listed on the Inc. Magazine 500 have one wish this Christmas: They want Santa to bring them more tech workers. It has been nearly 8 years since the National Academy of Engineering published a report – titled Rising Above the Gathering Storm – about the ongoing shortage of STEM graduates, yet not only have American schools not made any strides to catch up with the demand for tech-savvy professionals, but they’ve actually dropped even further behind.
Even excellent domestic schools districts still fail to live up to the international standards when it comes to science and math scores. The widespread attitude that equates science with elitism only contributes to the problem. Dane Stangler, writing for Inc., explains that the issue was brought home to him when he moderated a panel of business executives and leaders of non-profit organizations during the recent Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum. Those attending lamented about the failures in American education system that prevents it from producing enough skilled workers to fill employment gaps in an increasingly tech-oriented economy.
To put it simply, not enough students are studying STEM subjects. This may stem from lack of interest, lack of awareness, and lack of understanding as to what types of careers are available in the STEM fields. A lot of that, in turn, traces back to cultural signals. Pop culture attributes no “cool” factor to science.
It’s hard to isolate the exact causes for this failure, yet the fact that many science and mathematics teachers currently working in schools don’t have any background in these subjects surely contributes. This is no wonder. According to Stangler, those with the necessary background don’t often turn to teaching, preferring to take advantage of more lucrative opportunities in the private sector.
One of the panelists pointed out that the rapid evolution of the role technology plays in all areas of the economy also means that students who choose to pursue STEM education get conflicted information about what skills would be most useful. Not only does that confuse potential STEM workers, it also puts them at risk of graduating with a degree that would actually be of limited usefulness on the job market.
The solution starts with students and parents, who need a better understanding of what studying and working in STEM fields actually means. One panelist said we need more people who have an “entrepreneurial mindset” so we can go about creating new types of jobs and industries–and new demand for STEM. Private industry also has a crucial role to play: Several panelists pointed to partnerships already in place between employers and schools, especially community colleges, that train and retrain workers to work in science and engineering occupations.