Solving Bottlenecks in STEM Employment

Solving Bottlenecks in STEM Employment
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In December of 2017, the U.S. economy added 148,000 new jobs, closing the year out with 2.1 million more employees on the payroll. Healthy job gains, however, mask the fact that filling vacancies for high-skilled specialists like radiologists and engineers is still rather difficult. Solving these bottlenecks can help boost labor productivity and compensation going forward.

Ever since the “Digital Revolution,” which started with the adoption of the first digital computers in the 1950s, computing power has doubled every two years without fail. Now, a standard personal laptop is capable of running hundreds of millions of commands per second. This technological advancement boosts labor productivity and overall economic output. Those most equipped to harness this power are students and employees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) occupations. The STEM field spans across many occupations — from statisticians and software developers to physicists and aerospace engineers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 8.6 million STEM jobs in America back in May 2015 — almost 11 percent more than in 2009, with over 60 percent of these jobs in computer science and mathematical occupations. Per LinkedIn, the two skills in greatest demand in 2016 were cloud computing and statistical analysis. BLS estimates that by 2026 employment in these two occupations will grow another 13.5 percent — that’s over half a million new jobs.

But despite the apparent demand, STEM vacancies are difficult to fill.

A 2014 Brookings Institution study homed in on the matter. Comparing the length of time different vacancy postings remained open, it concluded that filling a STEM position takes more than twice as long as any other. Health care and computer science openings, for example, were advertised an average of 23 and 15 days longer, respectively, than openings for non-STEM occupations. The most likely explanation is a lack of qualified candidates, the study noted.

However, various pundits, such as Steve Lohr of the New York Times, argue that the number of STEM degree holders actually outpaces the number of job openings in relevant fields, with the exception of computer science.

So what’s going on?

One piece of this odd puzzle is the fact that almost three-fourths of all STEM graduates with bachelor’s degrees end up working in non-STEM occupations, where their STEM educations are being wasted. “While some skills expire every couple of years, our data strongly suggests that tech skills will still be needed for years to come, in every industry,” says Catherine Fisher, LinkedIn career expert. Retail, financial services, health care — you name it. Manufacturing, for instance, is already posting more STEM jobs for software developers and engineers than production workers. Meanwhile, traditional STEM fields like electrical engineering are left with staffing gaps.  

There is another caveat: Recent STEM graduates entering the labor market are competing with those laid off during the Great Recession. This creates a vast pool of new STEM graduates with no hands-on experience.

Compounding the problem, their degrees are often not well-matched to the open positions. Carlos Faham, a graduate of Brown University with a PhD in dark matter physics, had little luck applying for jobs in tech companies prior to 2015. “It was like hitting a wall running at full speed, really humbling,” Faham said. He managed to land a job only after enrolling in an Insight Data Science Fellows program.

Such misalignments are too common, partially because hiring managers are continuously fine-tuning the skill set requirements to keep up with the changing technology and growing clientele. 

But the problem begins with K-12 education. American public schools are falling behind the ever-evolving needs of the labor market.

“California currently has tens of thousands of open computing jobs where salaries are significantly higher than the state average, but our education system is not aligned to meet this workforce need and economic opportunity,” said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. In 2015, less than half of public schools offered computer programming, and only around 60 percent of high schools offered physics. Lack of STEM offerings stifles labor productivity and economic growth.  

In September of last year, President Donald Trump weighed in on the matter, signing an initiative to increase STEM education funding. It will direct at least $200 million annually in federal funds to K-12 and post-secondary education in STEM fields, making it one of the top priorities on Betsy DeVos’s agenda. But will it have a meaningful impact?

Former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama each increased funding for STEM education, in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Both initiatives, however, pretty much failed, due to systemic flaws in the American public education system: cramped classrooms, inflated grades, and shrinking classroom funding squeezed out by other public costs, just to name a few.

There is an ongoing shift toward more intellectually demanding professions, and solving the STEM talent conundrum would yield far-reaching benefits. After all, technological advancements like automation and artificial intelligence are here to enhance our labor productivity — but we need workers who know how to create, develop, and harness these technologies first.

Anil Niraula is a Young Voices advocate and an analyst who writes on labor and economic policies.

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