The state of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in the United States has been under scrutiny for about a decade, since increasing numbers of scholarly articles and reports began to predict that the United States would be unable to produce sufficient numbers of qualified college graduates to fill the growing number of STEM-related positions.
Because of the magnified interest in STEM, the Department of Education focused on STEM in its 2013 fiscal year planning session, developing a five-year strategic plan whose broad objective was to ensure that the United States would not fall behind other leading nations. Now, three years later, many have begun to wonder if the gains in both STEM education and STEM-related business are enough.The proposed plan focused on five main goals:
- Reach more students and more teachers more effectively with STEM efforts by reorienting federal policy to meet the needs of those delivering STEM education: school districts, states, colleges and universities.
- Reorganize efforts and redirect resources around more clearly defined priorities, with accountable lead agencies.
- Enable rigorous evaluation and evidence-building strategies for federal STEM education programs.
- Increase the impact of federal investments in important areas such as graduate education by expanding resources for a more limited number of programs, while recognizing shortages in key disciplines and professions.
- Provide additional resources to meet specific national goals, such as recognizing and rewarding excellence in STEM instruction, strengthening the infrastructure for supporting STEM instruction and engagement, increasing the number of undergraduates with a STEM degree by one million over the next decade, and broadening participation in STEM fields by underrepresented groups.
A Crisis and a Surplus
In a 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics publication, one research group analyzed the state of STEM against several different factors: geographic region, economic projections, and employment. The data, compiled from diverse sources like newspaper articles, company recruitment data, and notable reports, indicated that the state of STEM is suffering both a crisis and a surplus. Not surprisingly, the crisis lies in the education sector. Researchers noted that "low STEM retention rates, a relative decline of US citizens enrolled in science and engineering graduate school, and lower percentages of STEM graduates than other developed countries" were hindering growth in the number of qualified individuals available to fill STEM positions. The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, in the same publication, pointed out that the US would need to "increase its yearly production of undergraduate STEM degrees by 34 percent over current rates to match the demand forecast for STEM professionals."
And the surplus? That's in STEM-related jobs, although the researchers found that the job market for a STEM career varies by geographic location. For instance, technology positions are in high demand in California, Washington, and New York, with accompanying higher rates of pay; in Texas and Oklahoma there is a heavy demand for engineering professions, in particular for the oil and gas sector. In other areas of the of the United States STEM-related support positions in sectors like manufacturing are in demand. In those cases, the shortage of STEM-qualified candidates is exacerbated by a shortage of candidates in the skilled trades, as evidence has shown that fewer people are pursuing that type of employment.
Additional Contributing Factors
STEM education directly affects the pool of qualified job seekers, and so the demand for quality education to prepare students for college-level courses is at an all-time high. Many states across the country are feeling the need to use more aggressive recruitment tactics as they struggle to fill their classrooms with qualified STEM teachers (check out our blog on teacher shortages here).
So, is the state of STEM improving or is it still lagging behind? Evidence shows that there is still much to be done, particularly in the way we educate and prepare our youth for higher education and STEM careers. Without an emerging workforce with STEM skills and knowledge obtained through hands-on, in-depth training, the United States will find that the gap between the crisis and the surplus will only widen. Even as more STEM-related jobs are created, fewer individuals will qualify for them and pursue long-term successful careers in STEM professions.