Opportunities Escalate in STEM Fields
27 May, 2014
By Rachel Duran
The hidden STEM economy was uncovered in a 2013 study, which found that 50 percent of STEM occupations don’t require a bachelor’s degree.
According to findings in the “The Hidden STEM Economy” more American’s are working in STEM jobs than previously believed. This is welcome news to the business community, particularly manufacturers, where the struggle to find qualified applicants for available positions remains an ongoing concern.
STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The conventional definition includes broad categories in architecture and engineering; computer and mathematical computations (a range from software engineers to IT user support); and social, life and physical science.
The talent shortage is compounded by the fact that an entire generation of talent elected not to pursue careers in manufacturing due to misconceptions about the available jobs in the sector, says Gardner Carrick, vice president for strategic initiatives, the Manufacturing Institute. The institute is an affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers.
“Manufacturing is not about endurance and a strong back,” Carrick says. “It is about interaction with machines, and your ability to operate, maintain and program them, and your understanding of scientific principles such as material science, pneumatics and hydraulics, and mechanical systems and electrical systems.”
Another obstacle to narrowing the skills gap is the battle for program funding in public schools, which have reduced or eliminated vocational education programs; and the scaling back of courses offered by community colleges.
One effort to close the STEM skills gap has been an emphasis on national, portable industry certifications. “More companies are asking community colleges to make certification programming a part of their curriculum so they have a confidence and understanding of what graduates of those programs can actually do vis-a-vis a skill set,” Carrick says.
The Manufacturing Institute has endorsed 15 organizations it considers to be world-class in regard to the skills certification process. “We are promoting the integration of those credentials into your typical education pathways,” Carrick says. “We have seen tremendous growth in the issuing of these certifications over the last three years. There were 115,000 of these credentials issued in calendar year 2013, which was up from 88,000 issued in 2012.”
“It is interesting to see after analyzing the data that there a large number of occupations in health care; finance; installation, maintenance and repair; and construction, for which workers report that they need a high level of STEM knowledge in one or more of the core stem fields.” – Jonathan Rothwell, senior research associate and associate fellow, Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program
Additionally, Carrick says the U.S. Department of Labor has made most of its grant funding contingent on the implementation of certifications.
Uncovering the Hidden Gems
The considerable push by higher education and government leaders, associations, and businesses to direct students into STEM fields appears to be narrowing the skills gap. In “The Hidden STEM Economy” researchers were looking for a less arbitrary way of distinguishing STEM workers.
“It is interesting to see after analyzing the data that there a large number of occupations in health care; finance; installation, maintenance and repair; and construction, for which workers report that they need a high level of STEM knowledge in one or more of the core stem fields,” says Jonathan Rothwell, senior research associate and associate fellow, Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Based on the data developed for the report, Rothwell says 20 percent of the U.S. workforce is involved in STEM fields; the National Science Foundation estimates the number to be 5 percent.
“So this is a large difference in terms of the pervasiveness of STEM skills across different occupations,” Rothwell says. “Many require a certification, on-the-job training or an associate’s degree. This is good news in terms of giving workers more options, young people more options in terms of pursuing a decent paying job. There is a nice wage premium when you compare someone with an associate’s degree in a STEM field to someone with an associate’s degree outside of a STEM field; likewise at the high school level.”
Carrick says STEM skills are critical to the future of manufacturing, which will only get more intensive. For example, 3-D printing is on the cusp of adoption. “It is a highly technical process by which you need to understand the interaction of materials, you need to understand how to mold and fuse them together, and you need to understand how to run complicated machinery,” Carrick notes. “And this is for the people that are interacting on a daily basis. We are not talking about graduate level engineers who are doing the design and research work.”
What’s more, there is a continuous feedback of data from sensors and monitoring equipment. Carrick says production workers need to understand what the machines are saying. “So STEM will be more and more of the foundation of all jobs and all innovations in manufacturing,” he says.
Proactive Businesses Benefit the Most
There are many ways manufacturers can actively engage in developing the pipeline of STEM workers, such as partnering with the education providers who are delivering the talent. “Those schools need to know they are providing individuals that are meeting the demands of manufacturers in their area,” Carrick says. “If they don’t hear that they are doing the right thing — there are a lot of competing priorities for those dollars at schools.”
“Much like you need to ensure new research and innovation are disseminated to companies, particularly small and medium-sized companies; there has to be a priority to link public education to manufacturing. But we need to be willing to pay the extra cost that allows you to take hold.” – Dan Swinney, executive director, Manufacturing Renaissance.
For companies considering expansion and/or relocation, there are several ways to evaluate a location’s STEM workforce, including studying the Manufacturing Institute’s M-List, which highlights 70 schools offering certification programs as part of their curriculums. There is an application process to be included on the list, so it is not a complete list of schools that offer certifications. “The list is a way to signal to manufacturers that these are the schools that are producing some of the best talent,” Carrick adds. “If you are seeing a cluster of schools in any given geography that are on the M-List that is a good indication you can expect to find a quality workforce in the area.”
High Schools Ramp Up STEM Initiatives
As Rothwell mentions, companies should consider partnering with high schools to develop workers with STEM skills. In Chicago, 55 area manufacturing companies have partnered with Austin Polytechnical Academy to provide high school students with work-based learning experiences, as well as full-time, career-track jobs after high school. The students can also earn national industry-recognized machining credentials.
The training efforts have expanded to include night programs for adults in the Austin community, and a pilot program to train people exiting the criminal justice system.
The Austin academy is part of the Chicago Public Schools system, and offers Manufacturing Connect, a program of the Manufacturing Renaissance, says Dan Swinney, executive director, Manufacturing Renaissance. The organization, which is a nonprofit working to rediscover, redefine and rebuild manufacturing in the knowledge economy, has initiatives in Chicago and the San Francisco Bay area; and more recently in Detroit. Exploratory efforts are underway in New York City, and there is emerging interest in the program from the Mobile, Ala., and Spokane, Wash., areas.
Swinney says stakeholders should invest in schools such as Austin Polytechnical Academy, and in communities like Austin around the country to ensure the communities are part of the manufacturing sector’s recovery.
“Much like you need to ensure new research and innovation are disseminated to companies, particularly small and medium-sized companies; there has to be a priority to link public education to manufacturing. But we need to be willing to pay the extra cost that allows you to take hold.”
In Michigan, the Square One Education Network provides grant funding to schools to invest in teachers, their ideas, their capabilities and their passion in regard to STEM education. Initiatives include the Vehicular Engineering Challenges, which are competitions in the K-12 system. There are water and land-based challenges, and the land-based challenges are geared toward middle and high school students. In May, 45 teams were expected to participate at a challenge day at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn to demonstrate full-scale, mini-racing or autonomous vehicles.
Also in Michigan, the Career Liaison Jump Start program consists of liaisons in 10 “prosperity regions” in order to educate students about shorter-term career opportunities, associate’s degrees and apprenticeships that are in high demand in the manufacturing sector. The Michigan Economic Development Corp. points out that in two months, 46,000 connections were made with students throughout Michigan.
Moving to Iowa, economic development leaders say the economy is dependent on the biosciences, financial, IT, and advanced manufacturing sectors. The STEM Connector report released in April found the state of Iowa will need to fill 72,000 STEM jobs by 2018.
The Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council’s overarching goals include helping students develop STEM skills, while linking the relevance of STEM to their futures. Initiatives to close the skills gap in the state include STEM licensure for K-12 teachers; STEM-focused school partnerships; postsecondary workforce readiness certificates; and a blended statewide STEM professional development model.
A council spokesperson, Jacci Lynn, writes in an email correspondence that the efforts are about innovation, productivity and opportunity. She notes STEM initiatives will bring about change by leveling the playing field of opportunity by providing STEM education programs to children, and by expanding access to STEM-education programs.
Rothwell says identifying decent paying STEM careers opens up opportunities for people so they see “these (job) options are for them.” He says the identification of STEM careers that require less than a bachelor’s degree have implications for education policy, for community colleges, and for various organizations both nonprofit and governmental, which are working to boost the education and the skills of their labor forces.
For complete details about the organizations featured in this article, visit:
Illustration by Stuart Miles at Free Digital Photo.net