For well over a decade, business groups and politicians of all stripes have been strongly decrying the dearth of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students in the United States. This deficiency, they assert, imperils the United States’ position as a global economic and military power. Further, as jobs progressively require technical expertise, the current STEM shortage will only grow, thereby placing the high standard of living that Americans enjoy at increasing risk. Several million STEM jobs, especially in the Information Technology industry, are likely to go unfilled over the next five years because of lack of STEM workers and graduates, they claim.
Both President Barack Obama and his predecessor President George W. Bush subscribe to this STEM shortage narrative and made STEM education a national priority in their respective administrations. Since 2000, the federal government has spent nearly $40 billion on STEM education programs and activities. Similarly, state and local governments as well as an untold number of business and non-profit organizations have collectively provided billions more to increase the number and proficiency of students willing to pursue STEM-related degrees at all degree levels.
However, numerous independent researchers have raised serious doubts about whether a STEM shortage ever existed or will at any time in the foreseeable future.
Studies performed at Ball State University, Duke University, Harvard University, Rutgers University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Urban Institute, the Economic Policy Institute, the U.S. Government Accountability Office and the RAND Corporation, to name just a few, have been unable to substantiate the presence of any widespread STEM shortage. What these studies consistently demonstrate, however, is that America produces far more STEM graduates than there are STEM jobs except in some very narrow career fields, such as petroleum engineering. In recent years, oil industry demand for petroleum engineering graduates has pushed their average starting salaries to $90,000 or more.
When confronting those organizations claiming a STEM shortage with evidence to the contrary, the typical response is to avow strongly that the research is simply wrong or biased. More recently, the denials have evolved into concessions that there may be more STEM graduates than STEM job openings. However, it’s not the quantity of STEM graduates that is the problem, but their quality, they argue. In other words, secondary schools, community colleges and universities are not producing STEM graduates that are workforce ready.
Wharton School management professor Peter Cappelli calls this supposed mismatch between what is being taught to American students in schools and what prerequisite skills businesses say they require so as to hire them upon graduation the “skills gap” problem. However, it is illuminating to examine what skills businesses think graduates lack.
One would expect, given the STEM shortage claims, that technical skill deficiencies would be what employers are most worried about in recent graduates. Yet, what multiple surveys of employers reveal instead is that it isn’t necessarily STEM graduates with technical prowess that they prize most, but graduates who demonstrate leadership ability, have the capability to work in teams, possess written and oral communication skills, have proven problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, as well as exemplify a strong-work ethic.
The most highly sought after of all STEM graduates not only possess this impressive array of professional soft skill qualifications, but they also have gained work experience in their field of study before they received their degree.
The most highly sought after of all STEM graduates not only possess this impressive array of professional soft skill qualifications, but they also have gained work experience in their field of study before they received their degree. A recent survey by educational publisher Chegg, for instance, found that 81 percent of hiring managers believe that college students should have finished a formal internship before graduating and entering the workforce.
Unfortunately, the Chegg survey did not ask those same hiring managers exactly where college students are supposed to find those formal internships. According to the Department of Labor, intern and apprenticeship programs have declined by 40 percent since 2003. Furthermore, two-thirds of apprentice programs that do exist are in the construction industry. One additional revealing question Chegg might have included in its survey of hiring managers was how many of the managers’ own companies offered formal STEM internships.
Along with not having the right soft skills, employers are unhappy that students are not pursing the right STEM degrees, meaning ones that employers find they need filled immediately. Oil industry executives, for example, have been complaining for years that they cannot find sufficient numbers of petrochemical engineering graduates to hire. Of course, what they don’t like to admit is that this shortfall was caused by the decisions taken during the dramatic downturn in the oil industry in the 1980s and 1990s. The massive layoffs of personnel that occurred killed off the demand for petroleum engineering workers and graduates. Then, when the demand unexpectedly picked up a decade ago, the industry found itself short of graduates to hire. Now, as the demand for oil contracts shrinks and layoffs begin anew, the demand for graduates is, unsurprisingly, growing soft once more. Interestingly, oil industry executives aren’t pledging to keep hiring the same number of new petroleum engineers as last year, regardless of the future demand for oil.
Ask any business executive what technical skills they will be hiring in five years, and they will look at you in bewilderment. They will assert they couldn’t possibly tell you given that technology is changing so quickly. However, these same business executives fully expect STEM-bound students to be clairvoyants while in high school, able to confidently predict what technical subject they should study in order to meet the demand years in advance of what industry knows itself. This attitude is seen especially in the IT industry, where businesses loudly complain that universities are not producing sufficient numbers of graduates with data analytic or cloud computing skills, the demands for which have only emerged in the past few years.
The business community’s unrealistic expectations about what soft and hard skills STEM students should have when they graduate from an educational institution makes their complaints about a skills gap ring hollow.
The business community’s unrealistic expectations about what soft and hard skills STEM students should have when they graduate from an educational institution makes their complaints about a skills gap ring hollow. If businesses truly want graduates with formal work experience along with robust professional skills that can only be learned on the job, then it must provide those opportunities for students.
The New York Academy of Science, which also found that there are more STEM graduates than STEM jobs, has proposed in a recent study that the federal government provide incentives to businesses. These incentives are meant to encourage them to work collaboratively with education institutions to create a new “STEM ecosystem” in which STEM students can get both the technical education they need and the real-world experience employers say they want.
A few colleges and universities, like Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, already have strong employer-university cooperative education and career development programs which accomplish this dual objective. Northeastern works with willing employers to place students in full-time jobs over alternate semesters. The student gains valuable professional hard and soft skill experience, while the employer gets a cost-effective means to evaluate a potential future STEM employee. Expanding this type of collaborative program to the high school and community college levels across the U.S. is possible but needs strong business community support and commitment of significant resources.
It is easy and cost-free for the business community to blame the U.S. educational system for not producing professionally polished STEM graduates. Business, though, would be better served developing more realistic expectations of the skills most STEM students can possess at their graduation, as well as take the initiative in working earnestly with local and state educators at every level to develop the skills in STEM graduates it proclaims are so desperately required.