Will Education Reform Alone Stem the Crisis in the STEM Workforce?
The current state of STEM education is in crisis mode by any accounts. But what exactly is the STEM crisis? It may not be what you think.
We all know this part already: Not enough kids are taking courses that embed Science, Technology, Engineering and Math into the curriculum. These courses need to be offered before students can take part, and STEM education reform is slowly winding its way into many schools. This of course is a good thing, as educators strive to develop kid’s sense of creativity and foster innovative thinking, in conjunction with core skills in Science, Math and other subjects. And the hope is that students currently in the K-12 system will be inspired to become part of the growing STEM workforce.
It’s Not Just the Economy
Its important to realize that STEM fields are not isolated to certain portions of the economy, as is often portrayed in the media when they discuss the growing need for STEM workers. STEM is very much a national security issue, and it permeates throughout multiple sectors of the US economy. Continuous innovations in manufacturing, computer science, nanotechnology, aerospace, biotechnology, robotics and many others are critically important for US leadership over nations that wish to gain supremacy in these areas.
This is in fact a key reason that politicians from both sides of the aisle agree that funding STEM education reform remains intact. It also explains the reason that agencies such as DARPA, NASA, ONR, and Homeland Security, as well as defense industry contractors support nearly any and all STEM education efforts.
But. The US workforce is still lacking the skilled labor that is needed to fill the jobs that go wanting in STEM fields across the country. The pool of STEM workers is very shallow, and the job opportunities are stacked deep.
China and India, considered by most accounts to be developing nations, produce many multiples of our engineers and scientists, even as a percentage of the population. These and many other countries are on a relentless path to unseat the US as an economic and military powerhouse, and they know that science and engineering prowess are the keys to success.
It is a strange irony that the federal government and private industry, suffering from the immediate gap in the STEM workforce are working hard to ramp up the H-1B visa program to court these same foreign nationals to leave their countries and settle in the US as a stopgap measure to add to the pool of US STEM workers . And while foreign nationals will be able to help to a certain extent, they are not eligible for many of high security jobs in the defense industry.
So the federal government and private sector continue to scramble and seek partnerships that help to alter education standards and change pedagogical methods in order to raise STEM awareness and encourage young people to consider a STEM career path.
The True Measure
And what is the true measure of the success of these efforts at STEM education of students and the public at large? Awareness and consideration of STEM careers are important, but the outcome that is really expected as the endgame is this: How many kids are really going to follow the path to the end and be viable candidates for those STEM jobs in the next decade?
The multitude of broad ranging programs that exist today have shown to be effective in the long term to get some desired results, but there is a way to get the students who are in the immediate pipeline to become part of the STEM workforce in the next five to ten years- meaning current high school and college students. Their thoughts need to be tuned in to this issue right now and it is going to take drastic measures to help them make up their minds. The stakes are high on so many levels that we can not afford to wait and see which of the current programs produce the true desired outcome.
Doing It Now
What can be done right now with those students who are nearing decision making time in one form or another?
Many years ago, some of my federal student loans were offset because I taught science in an underserved, rural community. We can do something similar, only better, with students who complete a course of study in a high need STEM field. This will call for a very close partnership between all interested parties. There must be accountability by the students, and the carrot at the end is, upon completion of the degree, loans are forgiven. That’s right, forgiven. No reduced interest rates, no extended payment periods, just debt free after college. And employers can offer guaranteed job placement.
A college education costs roughly $55,000. We get 18 STEM workers for every million dollars at that price. There are a thousand million in one billion, so one billion dollars gets us 18,000 new scientists and engineers and mathematicians. These are not hard and fast numbers, and they are not that important. Costs can be reduced with the use of certain online coursework for instance. The details can and should be worked out by the stakeholders.
A single, large scale program that finances college education in return for choosing a STEM career path can work right now.
How many students in college today would change their majors or finally declare one?
How many high school students would enter STEM courses of study?
How many high school students would change their minds about going to college?
So let’s return to the question of the True Measure of the effectiveness of a STEM program: How many kids are really going to follow the path to the end and be viable candidates for those STEM jobs in the next decade?
Very possibly, quite a few.
This is a call for bold action, and it transcends political, gender, racial and ethnic barriers. We need everyone. It is a call out to all agencies involved in national security. It is a call out to all private industry who need STEM workers. It is a call out to all educational institutions and educators.
Let’s see if anyone listens.