A Competitive U.S. Economy Requires STEM Capabilities

Lately it seems like lawmakers can’t agree on anything. However, preparing and training the United States work force provides an excellent  opportunity for all lawmakers to work together and ensure that the U.S. education system meets the needs of a 21st century economy.

Education and ongoing training are essential for a productive and robust workforce, yet both have stalled in the United States. The U.S. education system has eight times as many high school football teams as high schools offering advanced placement computer-science classes. And, students are increasingly opting out of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) courses. According to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), from 1997 to 2009 the number of U.S. high school students taking the advanced placement test for music theory grew by 362 percent, while students taking the advanced placement computer science test grew by only 12 percent.

This once innocuous trend towards non-STEM disciplines is now an alarming threat to America’s economic future. STEM competencies spread to 40 percent of the market, and ITIF’s Rob Atkinson notes that “STEM jobs are growing faster than non-STEM jobs, particularly in IT occupations, but there are not enough U.S. graduates to fill these slots, even though overall IT wages have grown faster than average U.S. wages.” According to recent reports, American colleges over the next decade will grant 40,000 students bachelor’s degrees in computer science, but the U.S. economy will generate 120,000 jobs that require such degrees. The STEM workforce has grown more than 50 percent faster than the number of STEM degree recipients, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the U.S. economy will add more than 1.2 million computing jobs in the next ten years.

And it’s not just K-12 institutions, colleges, and universities that are failing to produce the STEM-capable workforce the U.S. economy demands. Corporations are also slacking, with U.S. companies investing half as much in training as a share of GDP compared to a decade ago. It is important for tech-reliant companies requiring students with IT-related degrees to continue sponsoring efforts to train graduates for careers in their industry. Luckily, corporations are beginning to partner with educators and policymakers at the national level to prepare a generation of STEM-capable graduates and employees.

While efforts at the national level are important, states will also play a major role in ensuring a properly trained workforce. In fact, California alone must fill 1,148,000 new STEM jobs by 2018 in order to remain competitive. States can provide additional resources to train and employ teachers of science, technology, engineering and math, as well as ensure schools utilize the latest hardware and software programs. But, money alone will not solve this issue.

Despite spending nearly $3 billion annually on STEM education, America still ranks 25th in math and 17th in science compared to other nations. According to the Government Accountability Office, 83 percent of federally funded STEM education efforts were largely duplicative, leaving 226 uncoordinated STEM programs. A lack of accountability added to these poor results.

States have the opportunity to focus efforts on accountability, incentives and low-cost alternatives. It is imperative that states conduct a comprehensive survey of STEM efforts, looking beyond anecdotes to understand how STEM programs truly produce results—and replicating these successful elements. For example, STEM initiatives historically granted funds based on promises of increased graduation rates in STEM disciplines; in the future, states should focus on incentivizing institutions by granting funds based on real results.

States should also take the lead in harnessing technological advances in the education system, which will prove critical to improve STEM graduate rates. Online courses are multiplying at a rapid pace and studies indicate online courses are as effective—if not more effective—than those offered in the classroom. Qualified candidates for STEM teaching jobs often gravitate towards attractive private sector positions. Yet, online courses would give thousands of students access to a handful of high quality STEM educators. This could be a game changer for the U.S. education system.

Technology and innovation have been and will continue to be key drivers in making the U.S. economy a global competitor. Yet, the inevitable number of high-skilled domestic jobs will not go to American workers if they lack the credentials and skills they need. In fact, over two-thirds of the engineers who receive Ph.D.’s from U.S. universities are not U.S. citizens. STEM-related positions will be slated for non-U.S. citizens or—much worse—remain unfilled. There is no single magic bullet for developing a STEM proficient workforce; the U.S. must pursue cooperation between all levels of the government, educational institutions, and domestic corporations. Without such cooperation, America’s economic future won’t be secure.