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Tue, Jul 10, 2012

Ideas & Trends

Fixing the Skills Gap Through STEM Education

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This guest post is by Corey Switzer, a senior engineering recruiter for TxMQ Inc. She blogs at Engineering.txmq.com/blog.

I don’t consider myself much of a whiner in my work-life. I’d like to think that I face challenges by “staying on the sunny side” and “making lemons into lemonade” and all that crazy jazz. Though as an engineering and technology recruiter, there happens to be one issue that really gets me ranting. Our STEM (science, technical, engineering and math)  talent pool is shrinking, and seemingly all anyone wants to do is complain about it.

Like I said – I’m solution-oriented. I wonder why we are facing a deficit of technical talent and how I can reverse this brain drain and the ensuing skills gap. Unfortunately the matter isn’t as simple as I’d like it to be. In the past 10 – 15 years the U.S. educational system has fallen from grace when it comes to science, technology, engineering and math education. In 2011, the U.S. ranked 30th in high school math aptitude and 20th for science aptitude, falling far behind countries such as China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Finland to name a few.

President Obama is calling for “another Sputnik moment.” For those of us who were too young to remember the space race (myself included), the Soviets were the first to launch a satellite into space back in 1957. We all know that the U.S. just can’t stand to be second best, so JFK gave a rousing speech, we re-allocated millions of dollars into engineering, math and science education, and 12 years later we landed on the moon!

It took some stiff Soviet competition to kick our butts into gear back in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, but we did it. We increased funding and made science and engineering glamorous. Fast forward to 2012 and we need “another Sputnik moment” – this time, not to trump the world in innovation, but to save our extremely fragile economy from folding in on itself due to the skills gap.

Today, there are millions of jobs in the U.S. that are going unfilled because we simply don’t have enough individuals with the right skill sets to fill them. If I had to take an educated guess, I’d say that AT LEAST 80% of those jobs are STEM-related. According to statistics, if we could increase our high school student’s math and sciences test scores by just 5% that would translate into $41 trillion dollars generated for the U.S. economy over the next 20 years in the technology/innovation sector. Heck, if we could fill an additional 5% of technology-related job openings today, think of the kind of money that would be generated through continued innovation and commercialization of products while also increasing household expendable income.

According to Obama, “Educate to Innovate” is our solution to STEM issues in the U.S. As an engineering recruiter I have to be a big advocate of this particular campaign, which plans to target Americans from pre-school age and up.

You can visit the official “Educate to Innovate” website to learn more.

If you take a look at the site; it’s very inspirational and flowery, but the fundamental message is very serious.

Craig Barrett – former CEO of Intel – states that the most common educational background of U.S. CEO’s is engineering. You heard me right folks – not business, but engineering. I can personally corroborate that statement. I think ALL of the companies I work with have degreed engineers as CEOs, presidents, VPs, etc.

If that’s not inspiration to take a second look at STEM education, I don’t know what is. At the end of the day, we need to be inspiring our 5 year olds to consider growing up to be an engineer, or a chemist, or a CNC machinist (I can’t believe I almost forgot to mention the skilled trades – also skill sets in high demand)! We need to have them watching programs like “HowIit’s Made” on the Discovery Channel. We need to give or get them additional help with their homework when entering into pre-calculus and physics in high school, and most of all we need to make STEM-related degrees and careers glamorous again. Did you know that the 10 highest paying jobs in 2011 were STEM-related?

Forget marketing and advertising (the glam jobs of my generation). We have been churning out so many marketers that U.S. businesses are saturated with talent, which unfortunately has left many with this skill set jobless and having to re-tool. Our deficit is in science, technology, engineering and math and companies are paying premiums to get people with these skills on board.

Critics of the Obama STEM initiative say that U.S. politicians are losing sight of the true meaning of education for education’s sake. Huh? What is the purpose of education but to cross that stage in cap and gown and become a revenue-generating, contributing member of our society? If not for the practical application of all of these sciences we would all be nomadic hunter-gatherers. C’mon Mr. Professor – don’t you like grading papers on your iPad?! Do you enjoy the A/C in your car in these dog days of summer? Looks like we’re going to have a struggle from all angles with this one!

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  • Frank

    We as a nation could only profit as a result of educating our children in these areas. Imagine an entire generation with the skills and knowledge to push technology to the next levels. What kind of advances could we see? What kind of lives could we live? I honestly don’t think we go far enough with just offering these skills to our children. Our nation should equipped it’s teachers with the ability to offer this level of education. We should be rewarding our educators to take on this initiative. We should offer continued education to every member of our society, secondary and post secondary educational programs for all adults should be standard. Education throughout life for everyone should be incorporated into the lives of our nation. If we could celebrate the mind, we would be limitless.