The STEM Education Challenge

Allen West
Posted: Jul 26, 2016 12:55 PM
The STEM Education Challenge

(Editors’ note: This column is co-authored by Chris MacFarland)

New, robust partnerships between the public and private sectors are needed today to attract and educate the young scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians for tomorrow.

A stem is the main trunk of a plant, and STEM — short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — is the main trunk of our economy.

A plant that gets too little water will fail to grow. Unfortunately, that’s also what’s happening to STEM education in our country today.

We’re simply failing to attract and educate a sufficient number of young scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians. Demand for these workers is growing fast, but our pool of talent isn’t.

The situation is especially perplexing, given that a career in STEM would seem to be highly attractive. Consider:

· Demand for STEM jobs is growing fast. Jobs across all occupations are forecast to increase by only 14 percent between 2010 and 2020. By contrast, jobs in biomedical engineering are expected to increase during that same period by 62 percent. In medical science, jobs are expected to grow during that period by 36 percent. And in systems software development, to grow by 32 percent.

· STEM jobs pay well. The average wage for all STEM occupations in the United States is $85,570. That’s nearly twice the average for all occupations.

· STEM is an equal-opportunity employer. Women with STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than those in non-STEM occupations. They also experience a smaller wage gap relative to men.

Despite these positive benefits, interest in STEM careers is limited. The U.S. government now expects that 2.4 million STEM jobs will remain unfilled by 2018. And only 16 percent of our high-school seniors are proficient in math and interested in a STEM career. As a result, the STEM job gap does not appear likely to be bridged anytime soon.

A for Effort

However, we can’t blame the STEM challenge on a lack of concern or effort. In fact, a myriad of schools, government bodies, corporations and non-profit organizations have been trying for years to close the STEM gap. They’ve conducted studies, awarded grants, held contests with valuable prizes, even run technology summer camps for inner-city kids. Yet despite all this well-meaning work -- not to mention the literally hundreds of millions of dollars these efforts have collectively cost -- the nation’s STEM gap is expected to be serious.

What’s wrong? We believe many of these efforts, while certainly well-intentioned, have missed the mark. For example, too many of our university business schools still teach the traditional subjects of accounting, finance and economics. Instead, they need to focus on STEM topics such as information technology, cybersecurity and analytics.

But that’s not all. We’re convinced that too much STEM emphasis has been placed on older university students. Instead, we need to capture the interest of students who are much younger --ideally, youngsters in elementary and middle schools. We also need more effective STEM programs that reach out directly to girls and members of minorities, both of whom are disproportionately underrepresented in technical and scientific job markets.

What’s Needed Now

So what’s the solution? We believe what’s needed is a much stronger alliance between our nation’s business leaders and its educators -- and not just at the university and college levels, but also in our K-12 schools.

To be sure, there have been some early and laudable efforts. For example:

· Intel has committed $300 million to STEM education. This supplier of microprocessors and other computing gear is focusing on K-12 and college classes in previously underserved regions.

· Microsoft is this summer offering free workshops at some of its retail stores. These programs, some of which are being offered to children as young as 8 years old, teach kids how to have fun writing software code.

But more is still needed. Otherwise, our schools will continue to operate in a vacuum, and the STEM gap will widen.

Industry executives, educators and philanthropists must solve this issue by working together. Companies need to get involved with their local schools, too. Masergy is helping to lead the way with a new scholarship program that will help students earn STEM-related degrees. Masergy engineers have also volunteered in Plano, TX area schools. With a challenge this big, this stubborn, and this important, we all need to do our part.

A former member of Congress, Allen West is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel and is the Executive Director of the National Center for Policy Analysis. Chris MacFarland is Chairman and CEO of Masergy Inc.