To fill STEM jobs, federal programs need to focus on results
© Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) forecasts that next year U.S. employers will be unable to fill nearly 2.5 million job openings in STEM and STEM-related occupations. At an average pay of $85,000 per year for jobs in STEM fields, 2.5 million unfilled positions means working Americans will lose $200 billion in lost wages. Lost productivity will decrease U.S. economic growth.

DOL projects millions more STEM job openings in coming years, with computer science and computer science-related occupations leading the way. Unfortunately, the U.S. is near the bottom of developed nations in STEM education. Furthermore, only one-quarter of K-12 schools in the U.S. offer quality computer science courses. Twenty-two states don’t even count computer science courses toward high school graduation!

The President’s Computer Science for All initiative commits significant federal resources to training new computer science teachers, upgrading educational materials and creating regional computer science education partnerships. But money alone isn’t the answer. For instance, part of the huge national shortage of qualified STEM workers is found in STEM-related occupations that only require two-year associates’ degrees or advanced vocational training. An expensive four-year college degree is not necessary for millions of good-paying jobs that are available immediately in industries like advanced manufacturing, aerospace and cybersecurity.

Veterans of military service are a huge human resource for civilian workforce needs. Military service includes training and hands-on experience in many STEM-related areas. With more than 1 million men and women in uniform in the queue to return to civilian life, there is an opportunity to help them toward find employment and give our economic competitiveness a significant boost.

Also, more women and individuals from historically under-represented populations should be encouraged to pursue STEM occupations. Women are about one-half of the U.S. workforce -- but less than one-quarter of STEM workers. Latinos, African-Americans and other under-represented demographic groups account for about three percent of current STEM workers.

The federal government spends about $2 billion per year on STEM education, a lot of it for a variety of programs intended to attract individuals to STEM from historically under-represented populations. As a whole, however, these programs haven’t changed the status quo. Rather than spending on more well-intentioned programs that don’t produce results, taxpayer resources should be focused on programs that work, that show a positive return on investment for America. For instance, science has proven that young girls and boys have equal aptitudes for science and math, but there equal attention isn’t given to both young girls and boys.

The House Science Committee, which I chair, recently approved a package of STEM education measures that addresses the above priorities:

  • STEM careers for veterans.
  • Engaging all students in science, math and computer science at an early age
  • Supporting STEM diversity programs only if taxpayer investment produces results (i.e., better student outcomes)

The House this week sent three of these bills to the Senate with strong bipartisan support.

The Science Committee will hold more hearings and develop more common-sense ideas for legislation in the coming weeks and months. Regrettably, the National Science Foundation (NSF) funds twice as many graduate student fellowships in the social sciences than it does in computer science. That’s in spite of the fact that fewer than one in five social science students can find jobs in their fields. In contrast, more computer science researchers and teachers are urgently needed. NSF needs new priorities that focus public resources on more support for graduate students in computer science.

Also, there is evidence that students pursuing STEM majors are more likely to complete their studies and pursue STEM careers if they have opportunities for relevant apprenticeship and part-time work experiences. The White House, in particular, seems to be very interested in working with schools, universities and private employers to boost such STEM apprenticeships.

The size and skill of our STEM workforce will be the most important determinant of our global economic competitiveness for decades to come. Computer skills, in particular, will be essential for most good-paying jobs. In order to receive taxpayer support, every STEM program must produce measurable results: attract more students to STEM fields, increase STEM graduation rates, and boost STEM skills (and earning power) among American workers. 

Rep. Lamar SmithLamar Seeligson SmithLawmakers scold NASA for cost overruns Big Tobacco’s smoke and mirrors revived by Pruitt’s science transparency policy Freedom Caucus bruised but unbowed in GOP primary fights MORE (R-Texas) is the chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.