Perspectives on the STEM Crisis

At the end of a recent board meeting of the Illinois technology Association (ITA), the members were asked    to offer observations on how their respective companies were doing under the current economic conditions.  In general, the technology industry has been somewhat less impacted than many others by the recent protracted downturn.  There was, however, an almost universal observation that one of, if not the most significant, impediment to improved growth is the shortage of technically trained employees.

This shortage of a workforce trained in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is potentially the biggest long-term threat to a US economy that has thrived on its ability to innovate and develop much of today’s rapidly advancing technology.  According to the US Department of Labor only 5% of the US workforce is employed in fields related STEM, but that 5% is responsible for more than 50% of economic growth.

There are significant global implications for this workforce shortage as well.  For quite some time, the US was a primary source of innovation while other countries, particularly in Asia, provided much of the manufacturing.  US Universities remained the most significant training ground for the world’s STEM graduates.  The percent of students enrolled in graduate STEM programs in US Universities is approaching 70%. The problem in the US was exacerbated by the lack of visas and green cards which would allow STEM graduates to remain in the US.  This was partially addressed by the STEM Jobs Act of 2012.  This legislation sets aside 55,000 green cards for graduates with graduate degrees in STEM fields.  These green cards are allocated first to PhD graduates with the remaining going to Masters Graduates.

In recent years the situation has changed somewhat dramatically.  First, other countries, again particularly in Asia, have invested heavily in expanding their university systems.  Europe continues to have excellent universities but less overall capacity than the US.  Second, a noticeable amount of research and innovation is now taking place in other countries.  Ironically, early signs of manufacturing returning to the US are taking place.

What is causing a massive shortage of US students entering STEM fields?  For some time, it seemed like there were sufficient employment opportunities for graduates in a variety of other majors.  Throughout most of the first decade of this century unemployment was relatively low and most college graduates had little difficulty in finding employment.  That, of course, has changed recently but has not driven more students into STEM fields.  One obvious problem is the difficulty of these majors.  The course material is challenging and requires a significant aptitude in math.  Perhaps more of an issue is the work load these majors demand.  A recent study showed that the average engineer devoted twice as much time to their studies as other majors.  Fully 40% of entering freshmen who intend on majoring in a STEM field switch majors.

A second challenge I believe is that the US K-12 system does not encourage students to enter STEM majors, doesn’t adequately prepare students for STEM majors and, perhaps most important, doesn’t create the enthusiasm necessary to overcome the challenges mentioned above.  The favorable employment market conditions and the above average compensation for these majors is not communicated.

So, what to do?  First, we need to address the issues in the K-12 system.  We should allow more technically trained individuals to become teachers without the necessity of gaining teacher certification.  Those who have worked in the field are uniquely prepared to pass on enthusiasm for the field.  My youngest son had an excellent teacher in high school who was an engineer, conveyed significant enthusiasm for engineering and has resulted in one more enthusiastic engineering student.  Giving high school guidance counselors more information on the field and the concomitant opportunities would also help.  Universities need to provide extra support for students entering STEM fields in order to significantly reduce the attrition rate.

Next, a vast untapped pool of potential STEM students is found among women and minorities.  The old joke is “how does an engineer know he’s in the wrong class?  If there are more than two girls in the class and they are cute.”  While women account for close to 60% of the undergraduates in the US, they represent less than 25% of the STEM majors.  In addition, only 15% of STEM degrees are awarded to underrepresented minorities.  Again, changes in the K-12 system are needed to help address this challenge.  The Chicago Tech Academy, a Chicago public school system high school focused on STEM fields is a terrific example of one way to address this issue.  Other efforts can help here as well.  I serve on the board of the Chicago Engineers Foundation.  The purpose of the foundation is to provide scholarships for Chicago city high school students to study engineering in college.

Unfortunately, changing this trend will probably take at least a generation.  The tendency with problems that require long-term solutions is to kick the can down the road.  The US, and in fact the rest of the world, cannot afford to wait.  Our future economic growth depends on it.