America’s growing necessity: Educated workers

As more and more jobs are becoming available in the areas of science, mathematics and technology in the United States, the problem is finding qualified workers to fill the open positions. According to the House Education and the Workforce Committee, “By 2018 the United States will have more than 1.2 million job openings in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) occupations.”

The concern is that these positions won’t be filled by American citizens, due to the lack of high school and college graduates in the country who are qualified. The federal government, however, has taken on the challenge of better educating America’s young minds, contributing $3 billion in federal spending to more than 230 programs across the country.

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The federal government remains apprehensive as to the effectiveness of the programs, in addition to the growing gap between available jobs and applicable college graduates.

“There’s this gap between what has been identified between a real need for a higher-quality STEM education system — not only so that we can turn out more workers, necessarily, but people who are better prepared to succeed in college and people who graduate from college who are better prepared for the specific needs of the workforce,” said James Brown executive director of the STEM Education Coalition. 

As the economy evolves, more jobs in STEM fields are becoming more readily available. The problem is that the U.S. education system is failing to keep pace with the changing landscape of the world economy. 

One reason for the ever-expanding gap of workers and jobs is a lack of student interest in the STEM fields — which is due, in part, to a shortage of qualified STEM teachers. 

“We have to have young people who are proficient in Science and Math,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus.

She sees the drop in interest in STEM subjects as two-fold: “We start introducing it to children much too late. We need to introduce this in second and third grade. ... And we have never focused on the people who teach these subjects.”

“The research around education, and specifically STEM education, says the biggest challenge and the most important thing you can do is have great teachers in the classroom teaching in the STEM subjects,” said Brown. “That’s, by far, the biggest challenge.”

Steve Schneider, a senior director  of the STEM Program at WestEd, agrees. In testimony before the House subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education earlier this month, Schneider urged the government to step up its efforts to close the gap. 

“The federal government should continue programs that recruit diverse students into STEM teaching and create innovation in STEM teacher preparation,” he wrote. “New ideas will have to be explored for including some introduction to engineering fields and principles in the preparation of science teachers.” 

Subcommittee Chairman Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) agrees that the government needs to continue its investment in STEM education programs to maintain the country’s economic competitiveness. 

“We need to foster collaboration and public-private partnerships aimed at preparing our students for in-demand STEM jobs,” said Rokita. “This will ensure that we can stay economically competitive in the global marketplace.”

He’s concerned, however, that “the $3 billion spent annually by the federal government on STEM education is being spent efficiently.”

A recent report conducted by the Government Accountability Office found duplication and redundancy among the 230 programs. Lawmakers questioned this duplicity at a congressional hearing held on April 10, to decide whether these programs need to be cut or if reform is needed for the $3 billion programs.

The GAO believes that cuts could be made to several programs that overlap or are duplicative, noting the difficulty evaluating the success of these programs adds more expense. 

“The majority of these programs lack goals, performance measures, or proven results,” said Rokita. “We need to reevaluate these programs and explore ways to support state and local initiatives, implement timely program evaluations, and streamline and consolidate wasteful or duplicative initiatives.”

Fudge offered a note of caution to those thinking of cutting programs in general: 

“The first thing we need to do is stop this austerity position on everything,” she said. “What made this country great was innovation. The first thing you do is not to cut innovation, not to cut technology, not to cut education.”

Brown, of the STEM Education Coalition, expressed worries that because the country’s educational competitiveness is slowly slipping behind the rest of the developed world in the disciplines of math and science, it might lead to the United States falling behind in economic competiveness as well. 

“The jobs issue in the sense that if there are not enough American students graduating to fill these jobs, companies are going to look to foreign workers. They’re going to look to locate where the foreign workers are,” he said. “They’re going to go where the more educated people are. You’re not going to continue to hear about unfilled jobs in the United States forever because global companies are simply going to relocate to where they can find the workers they need.”