Educating a New Workforce

As new generations of STEM graduates enter the workforce each year, the priorities of industry and young professionals continually change. Academia and industry must work together on a continuing basis to ensure future tech workers have the knowledge, skills and experiences necessary for success. With a shortage in the STEM workforce growing each year, it’s important — now more than ever — for academia and industry to build and maintain strong, collaborative relationships.

In the Washington, D.C. area alone, we have a critical need to fill 60,000 technology jobs before 2025, a number that will only grow as more high-tech firms move into the Mid-Atlantic region. As Engineering Change Lab USA President Mike McMeekin wrote in last month’s guest column, we need to make some serious changes in recruiting workers in order to keep up with demand nationwide. Getting more children interested in STEM before they enter high school is the first step, and our best hope to addressing this long-term challenge.

McMeekin also points out that the priorities of the STEM workforce have changed in two significant ways: the increasing importance of individual purpose and STEM’s impact on the environment and society. Today’s graduates want jobs where they can help make the world a better place.

According to Statista, a gender gap still remains among STEM graduates.

In addition, the STEM fields, in general, continue to lack diversity in race, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status. However, this challenge also provides an opportunity to solve the workforce shortage. McMeekin wrote that today’s young professionals expect there to be diversity in the workplace. We can focus our efforts in attracting the next generation of workers — one that is more diverse.

Black and Hispanic STEM workers are severely underrepresented, more so than in all other fields. It’s the same with women and those living in poverty. Encouraging girls’ interest in STEM programs at an earlier age could help them keep their interest into adulthood. According to a study by researchers at the University of Houston and the University of Washington, children believe boys are more interested than girls in engineering by age six or first grade. By third grade, the children studied believed that boys are more interested in computer science than girls are. The study also found that these beliefs did have a negative impact on girls’ continued interest in STEM. Based on this study, the best time to engage girls with STEM programs is preschool or earlier at home. Unfortunately, this is not always possible because of a lack of funding for preschools or the lack of resources for some families.

Educational media can help keep children, especially young girls, interested in STEM but only if the resources are available.

We need to end this cycle now. According to a study by the Education Development Center and SRI Education, parents are critical to developing a child’s interest in STEM topics. The EDC/SRI study found that kindergarten students living in poverty display less knowledge about basic STEM topics than do students from more affluent families. The study also found that educational media was essential to children and that “parents want ideas and resources to build their knowledge and confidence for helping their children learn science.” Television shows and movies that teach science could teach parents and children together. Parents showing an interest in STEM through these programs could encourage the children to keep their interest through adulthood.

As McMeekin pointed out in last month’s article, as the values of the new engineering professionals change, we need to adapt to their needs too. With options to explore a class (or even a minor) in other subject areas, students will be more well-rounded and better prepared to understand their world, and how they can make a difference. Certainly, a more well-rounded graduate will also be better able to communicate their ideas and potential solutions related to environmental protection, social justice and workplace diversity.

Industry and academia must collaborate to prepare students for the changing workforce.

Increasing enrollments in community colleges is another great way to increase the STEM workforce. Community colleges are often more accessible than four-year institutions. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, the average tuition and fees for a community college is less than one third than that of a public four-year institution. They are also more convenient, as 90% of the U.S. population lives within 25 miles of a campus. In many cases, students can attend community college before graduating high school or while working full time, widening the net of potential STEM students. Successful transfer to a four-year institution dramatically increases the number, and quality, of graduates with bachelor’s degrees.

Regardless of the approach, academia and industry must collaborate on a continuing basis to successfully prepare students to enter an evolving workforce. Feedback from industry professionals is essential in creating an educational experience that prepares them for success.

If you want to be part of this exciting challenge of shaping the future of STEM education, please visit our website and learn how you can make a difference!

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Michael Milligan

Executive Director & CEO of ABET, the global accreditor of college and university programs in the STEM disciplines.