Innovation drives the U.S. economy, and employees with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills have become a hot commodity in post-recession America. Between March 2009 and February 2012, the sluggish economic recovery saw only one job posting for every 3.8 unemployed non-STEM worker. The picture was much brighter for STEM job seekers, with 1.9 job postings for each unemployed worker. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment in STEM occupations will grow to more than nine million jobs by 2022, a 67 percent increase from the 5.4 million reported in 2009.
To remain competitive in the global economy, the U.S. must have a workforce that can fill this demand for STEM-skilled employees. For this, the nation turns to its education system. Can American high schools produce graduates ready to take on the rigors of STEM college programs? Will college students enrolling in STEM-related degree programs complete those programs and go on to innovate new industries to ensure a prosperous future for the country?
America falling behind
The 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) shows U.S. elementary and middle school students lagging behind Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan in math and science. The ACT “Condition of College & Career Readiness 2013” report found that only 44 percent of high school graduates met college readiness benchmarks in math, and even fewer, 36 percent, reached science benchmarks. While the number of American students earning college degrees is rising, only one-third of those degrees are in STEM fields, well behind other countries, such as China and Japan, where half of all degrees conferred are in STEM fields.
These statistics have raised the alarm that the United States will lose its completive edge if something does not change. A Microsoft whitepaper released in September 2012 called the need for STEM-skilled workers “urgent.” The tech giant claims it is creating jobs faster than they could fill them and warned that American jobs would be exported if America’s education system couldn’t produce more STEM-skilled workers.
Educate to Innovate
President Obama addressed the issue during his first year in office with the launch of his “Educate to Innovate” campaign. The campaign created partnerships between public and private organizations to develop resources and raise awareness of issues surrounding STEM education. Since the launch, the “Educate to Innovate” campaign has incentivized states to adopt rigorous educational standards and implement policies to recruit and retain highly effective teachers. The initiative includes programs to expand Internet connectivity in schools and provides grants to high schools and colleges for developing STEM-focused programs.
Is there really a STEM-worker shortage?
Some claim the STEM shortage is a myth created by employers seeking immigration policies that will allow them to hire lower-paid foreign workers. The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) cites a Census report that finds many workers who hold degrees in STEM fields don’t find employment in those fields. A CIS report concludes there is no shortage. Change the Equation disputes this conclusion, saying the Census data only shows there is a demand for STEM skills in non-STEM fields. Much of the conversation surrounding the shortage/no shortage debate can be traced back to this differences in how STEM occupations are defined.
While pundits debate the validity of STEM-worker shortage claims, the President continues to pursue his STEM education agenda to produce technology-literate graduates. In June 2014, the White House hosted its first-ever Maker Faire, a platform from which inventors across the country showcased their creations. The goal of the event was to inspire and encourage innovation and creativity using the latest technologies. The Maker Faire, along with the annual White House Science Fair, are a few of the steps the President has taken to raise STEM awareness and encourage young Americans to pursue careers in STEM-related fields.
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Gillian Burdett is a freelance writer covering all things home and living. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.