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President Obama looks at a paint robot created by Sylvia Todd of Auburn Calif during the 2013 White House Science Fair The annual event recognizes student achievements in science technology engineering and math competitions from across the US

Workforce: Attacking STEM at Its Roots

July 30, 2014
Here’s what manufacturers are learning about the dearth of science, tech, engineering and math skills that confronts them: Uprooting deep-seated problems takes heavy digging.

The shortage of workers with STEM skills, an issue that has dogged U.S. manufacturers on and off for decades, has come roaring back into play as the economy has rebounded from the Great Recession.

In fact, this shortage has grown so pronounced that, by one prominent measuring stick, high school graduates with STEM backgrounds are now in higher demand in the job market than college graduates who don't have STEM skills.

That counterintuitive flip-flop is a key finding of a new Brookings Institution report, "Still Searching: Job Vacancies and STEM Skills." The report notes that STEM job openings requiring only a high school diploma or associate degree take an average of three days longer to fill than non-STEM job openings that require a bachelor's degree.

According to the report, these metrics "reveal that blue collar or sub-bachelor's-level STEM jobs are harder to fill than even bachelor's-level non-STEM jobs."

"The mean duration for associate's-level and high-school-level STEM jobs is 40 days, compared to just 37 days for non-STEM jobs requiring a bachelor's degree," the report says. "These results suggest that the supply-demand imbalances at the middle education levels are very different for those with STEM skills than those without. At these education levels, those with STEM skills are at a distinct advantage over their non-STEM counterparts."

The report's author, Brookings analyst Jonathan Rothwell, says his findings also show that the U.S. manufacturing sector has a harder time filling STEM job vacancies than other sectors, and this problem is especially evident in subsectors that rely heavily on research and development and thus employ larger STEM-based workforces.

Action Steps

Rothwell suggests a number of practical steps that manufacturing executives can take to cushion their companies from the impact of the STEM skill shortage:

● "Ramp up on-the-job training. People who may not have exactly the right skills, or who may not have mastered, say, a particular programming language, can be paired with a more senior engineer—or computer worker, or installation/maintenance/repair worker, or what have you—and be trained on the job."

Jonathan Rothwell | Brookings Institution

● "Take a close look at your hiring practices to make sure they're up to date with changes in how people are acquiring skills. There may be, for example, ways to bring people in to get a particular skill, or a computer language, even if they haven't acquired the formal degree that is normally associated with it. For example, there has been a proliferation of online learning opportunities over the last few years through 'MOOCs' [massive open online courses] and other organizations that provide online access to university classes. A couple of prominent exa)mples of this are Udacity and Coursera."

● "A lot of companies are working with local schools, high schools in particular. IBM has set up a STEM school in New York City called P-Tech. Microsoft, Verizon, and some other tech companies have partnered with the Chicago Public School System to help design STEM-focused curricula at the high school level. This is a way manufacturers can be good corporate citizens to try to solve the problem over the longer term."

● "There are a number of policies manufacturers could advocate for. An obvious one is changes in immigration law to make it easier for foreign-born students who graduate from American universities to stay and work in the country—so they could more easily obtain longer-term visas or a Green Card for permanent legal status."

● "Lobby for reforms to our education system. Join organizations from both sides of the political spectrum to help drive the changes needed to improve educational quality and access to STEM-based educational fields."

About the Author

Pete Fehrenbach | Pete Fehrenbach, Associate Editor

Focus:  Workforce  |  Chemical & Energy Industries  |  IW Manufacturing Hall of Fame

Follow Pete on Twitter: @PFehrenbachIW

Associate editor Pete Fehrenbach covers strategies and best practices in manufacturing workforce, delivering information about compensation strategies, education and training, employee engagement and retention, and teamwork. He writes a blog about workforce issue called Team Play.

Pete also provides news and analysis about successful companies in the chemical and energy industries, including oil and gas, renewable and alternative.

In addition, Pete coordinates the IndustryWeek Manufacturing Hall of Fame, IW’s annual tribute to the most influential executives and thought leaders in U.S. manufacturing history.

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