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Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce Issues STEM Education Report

Aline D. McNaull
Number 4 - January 4, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce issued a report by Anthony Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Michelle Melton entitled “STEM - science, technology, engineering and mathematics”.  The October 2011 report provided insight on topics such as STEM occupations, wages, work interests and competencies, minorities and women in STEM fields, and information regarding those who divert from STEM disciplines. 

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce is an independent research and policy institute that studies the links between education, career qualifications, and workforce demands.  The center promotes equity and efficiency in postsecondary education in order to expand economic opportunities. 

The report begins by discussing the debate as to whether or not there is a shortage of STEM workers.  Some argue that the number of Doctoral and Master’s degrees in STEM fields has declined as a proportion of all degrees awarded while others cite the low number of tenure-track academic jobs available relative to the number of Doctoral candidates who apply for those positions.  The report finds “that the disagreement between those who argue that STEM workers are undersupplied or oversupplied can be resolved by the fact that large numbers of people with STEM talent or degrees are diverted away from STEM careers either in school or later in their careers.”

The authors offer the following arguments relating to STEM education and add suggestions as to how to maintain the interest of students interested in STEM fields:

In schools, “we are too focused on preparing students for the next level.  Instead, we should focus on developing curricula that put academic competencies into applied career and technical pedagogies and link them to postsecondary programs in the same career clusters.”

The report shows that 65 percent of individuals with Bachelor’s degrees in STEM occupations earn more than individuals with Master’s degrees in non-STEM occupations.  Also, 47 percent of individuals with Bachelor’s degrees in STEM occupations earn more than those with PhDs in non-STEM occupations.

The authors emphasize that students and workers, however, divert from STEM fields for many reasons.  Whether or not students are in the top quartile in math does not imply that they will choose to major in a STEM field.  In college, only 19 out of 100 students will graduate with a STEM major.  After 10 years, only 8 of these original 19 will still be working in a STEM occupation.  Many people divert from STEM fields because earnings are higher in healthcare and managerial professional positions but there are also other reasons for the diversion including work values and shifting interests.

As the economic value of innovation has shifted, the diversion from STEM fields represents “the broader reach of innovation beyond the traditional specialization of bench scientists and engineers towards integrated networks of manufacturers, producers, and customers across a wide array of industries.”

The report also found that:

“The changing nature of innovation also helps explain the diversion of STEM talent.  The nation’s STEM talent is chasing exciting innovation opportunities beyond the tradition environs of STEM work into the burgeoning social and economic networks that define the modern postindustrial economy.” 

Many STEM workers land outside of STEM occupations because their STEM jobs do not satisfy their social and entrepreneurial interests.  While STEM knowledge is highly specialized, it is also transferable and has applications in many fields.  Core skills associated with STEM occupations, such as critical thinking and operations analysis, also have uses in non-STEM fields.

The relatively open economy, superior economic and technical infrastructure, and high salaries for STEM workers gives the United States a competitive advantage when attracting global STEM talent. 

The report acknowledges wage issues and states that wages for STEM workers are high at all levels of education and there is a noted advantage regarding STEM earnings in that the rate of salary growth in STEM fields is high.  As in other occupations, African Americans and Latinos earn less than their White and Asian counterparts in STEM fields. 

The gender pay gap becomes significant over time “due mostly to the flattening out of women’s wages while men’s wages continue to rise.  By age 45-49, men earn almost 60 percent more than their female counterparts in STEM.” 

“Women and minorities are a significant portion of the population – well over half.  Failure to access the talent within that population is both inefficient and wasteful.” 

Globalization affects the STEM workforce in that US manufacturers are hiring engineers abroad because of the high demand for their products.  Companies with job openings report not having the STEM talent with necessary technical skills to fill their open positions.  These companies have encouraged strong investment in education and training. 

The report recommends that a strategy be implemented to address the shortage of STEM-related competencies.  That strategy would need to acknowledge that students with an interest in STEM fields need to be nurtured to develop their talents.  In addition, the strategy would also need to address that “we need to raise the bar across the board by teaching math and science competencies to a wider audience in a discipline-relevant, more accessible way.  Meeting the economy-wide demand for STEM competencies is no longer a matter of sorting our brightest students into STEM.”

The report concludes that:

“Our education system is not producing enough STEM-capable students to keep up with demand both in traditional STEM occupations and other sectors across the economy that demand similar competencies.”

Scientists must be representatives of the whole population and demand for science and math competencies continues to grow since “STEM occupations are not just the impetus for economic expansion; they play an important role in expanding human possibility.  STEM workers and those with STEM talent develop and design new medicines, build and design bridges and buildings, develop new technologies, and increasingly control the way we interact with the market by designing the architecture of our computers and the Internet.”

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics