My December 26, 2011 blog, Expanding the Ranks of STEM Professionals, examined some of the realities and the myths behind the much discussed skills mismatch in the U.S. labor force; a mismatch characterized by a surplus of people looking for jobs, but a shortage of people with the skills for which employees are looking. This is reflected in an economy in which there are more than four unemployed workers for every job opening, but also thousands of unfilled positions (primarily technical) for which employers have been unable to find people with the required skills.
In a nutshell, the disagreement, as I explained in last month’s article, boils down to three interpretations of the shortage problem:
- We are not educating or training enough STEM professionals;
- We are educating/training enough people, but employers are not paying them enough to attract them from jobs in fields such as management consulting or investment banking. This problem is exacerbated by U.S. government policies that make it difficult or unattractive for U.S.-educated, foreign-born citizens to stay in the U.S. and by increased aggressiveness of emerging country companies (especially Chinese and Indian) to recruit and attract top university graduates with offers of permanent visas, comparable salaries, attractive benefit packages, and the promise of interesting, resume-burnishing overseas work; and
- We are educating/training enough people, but many have insufficient functional skills (in their specific discipline) or broad foundational skills (communications, cognitive, etc.) to be hired in STEM jobs.
Although proponents of each of these interpretations disagree on many things, they generally do agree on two issues:
- Our K-12 educational system is not doing a good job at teaching STEM fundamentals (and thereby not preparing students for college-level work in these fields) or in creating the type of curiosity and excitement required to motivate our best and brightest to become engineers and scientists;
- Employers, who are cutting back on their own training programs, will accept only graduates who can fill a current need or otherwise deliver immediate value.
In Search of “THE STEM Solution”
We certainly don’t and possibly never will, fully agree on all of the specific “cause/s” of the STEM skills mismatch problem. However, most agree that the tech industry is having trouble getting the number and quality of people that it needs. Many agree that the reasons for this are two-fold:
- The imitations of our K-12 education system; and
- A dearth of corporate training programs;
I, along with virtually everybody else who examines the education-to-career pipeline, fully acknowledge that K-12 education is at the root of many of our problems. Unfortunately, none of the experts seem to be able to agree on the cause of this problem, much less on its solutions. Even if they could agree, the educational system is highly unlikely to get additional money (or probably, even avoid additional cuts) from state and local governments. Moreover, even if we were to identify the magic bullet, and could afford to develop and shoot it, it would probably take at least half of a generation to begin seeing meaningful results.
Compared with fixing the K-12 educational system, improving corporate training programs should be a piece of cake. After all, big companies already know how to provide training. Some, particularly those with large operations in India and China, already provide extensive education and training programs to compensate for the big gaps in these countries’ educational systems. Although smaller companies may not have such capabilities, even they can retain specialists to develop and administer programs that are tailored to their needs. The “only thing” that it will really take to address these needs is money. This too, however, will be a very tall order in the current era of economic uncertainty and unrelenting belt-tightening.
Moreover, even if we identify solutions to, invest in and address both of these potential issues, what if the underlying problem—companies’ inability to find people suited to fill specific STEM job openings—is not resolved?
Plugging the Leaks in the STEM Pipeline
There is no question. We absolutely must work to fix the K-12 educational system—for the good of our society, as well as for our companies. I would also love to see a recreation of many of the traditional corporate training programs. Ideally, I would particularly like to see U.S. companies go further, as by creating programs of the type that are widely used in India—whereby companies establish their own schools in which all new recruits are brought up to a common, base level of capabilities and then provided basic training in the specific disciplines to which they will be initially assigned. Such programs, could be used both, for new graduates (whichever level of school is appropriate for the anticipated positions) or for current or displaced employees who need to be retrained for new jobs.
In reality, however, such hopes are little more than pipedreams, at least in today’s economic and fiscal environment. Although we can certainly hope for progress in each of these areas, there are a number of generally smaller, more incremental steps that have the potential of at least alleviating part of the core STEM skills mismatch problem. For example:
- Employers can work with state and local governments to develop and continually update an online jobs guide, using a companies’ best estimates on which and how many positions are likely to be available over the next year, the next three years and the next five years, as well as the types of skills, qualifications and/or certifications individuals will need to prepare for these jobs. The postings should also provide anticipated compensation ranges, the schools and programs that train people for these jobs, and examples of potential career paths.
- Employers can partner with schools—particularly two-year colleges and universities—to jointly develop curricula, courses and materials for teaching the skills that will be needed for these jobs. Employers should also provide volunteer instructors, tools (computers, software, machines, support, etc. on which students can get hands-on training and practice), and, where appropriate, create meaningful internships, apprenticeship or sandwich year programs.
- Schools, local government organizations, companies and labor unions can invest in training and building networks of “career navigators” who can help students or transitioning workers assess their interests and skills; match these to colleges, curricula and career pathways; and guide clients through college planning and the college-to-career transition. Some non-profits, such as CAEL, already help companies, local governments and labor unions create such programs. It is also working with other organizations to develop an online training and certification process for these navigators.
- Governments and unions could make it easier for companies to put people though through company-run or company-sponsored training programs, test-hire them at low or subsidized rates for defined periods and easily dismiss those who do not meet expectations.
Most importantly, all students and employees must take much greater responsibility for planning, preparing for and managing their careers and for continually upgrading their skills. They must seek out and proactively work with career navigators to identify and prepare for careers that match their interests and skills, and that are likely to offer strong long-term employment opportunities. They must select schools and employers that offer the educational and training opportunities that will prepare them for these careers. They must, though coursework, reading and extra-curricular activities, develop the foundational skills, as well as the functional skills they will require. And, in the current era of perpetual uncertainty, they must continually assess the long-term trends in their own and other potential career paths and industries, identify needs and opportunities for changes, and continually update and supplement their skills to ensure they will can provide higher and higher levels of value to current and future employers.