The House Science Committee unanimously approved a bipartisan bill that would direct the National Science Foundation to support several new grant programs focused on mentoring, training, and apprenticeships in STEM fields.
At an April 17 meeting, the House Science Committee approved the “Innovations in Mentoring, Training, and Apprenticeships Act” by a voice vote. Sponsored by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the bipartisan bill would direct the National Science Foundation to issue grants and support research focused on the “skilled technical workforce,” defined as “workers with high school diplomas and two-year technical training or certifications who employ significant levels of STEM knowledge in their jobs.”
“Everyone wants to do something that they can be proud of and where they are needed, and our nation has a great need for skilled labor and professionals with knowledge in the STEM fields,” said McCarthy in a statement on the bill’s approval.
The bill is the committee’s latest effort under the leadership of Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) to support STEM education programs and career pathways. It complements other efforts underway in Congress and the Trump administration to bolster career and technical education (CTE) programs.
Committee leaders tout STEM apprenticeships and training
Smith said the legislation stems from a hearing the committee held in February that highlighted workforce development opportunities such as mentoring and apprenticeships as tools to help address skill gaps and shortages in the STEM workforce as well as enhance student engagement with STEM subjects at all levels.
“Successful workforce development programs extend beyond the four walls of classrooms and laboratories,” Smith stressed. He pointed to Wichita State University’s applied learning initiative, discussed at the February hearing, as an example of a successful partnership between universities and local employers that offers apprenticeships for students. “Research shows that direct knowledge and hands-on work experience with STEM occupations and opportunities stimulate interests in STEM courses and degrees,” he noted.
Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), who is a co-sponsor of the bill alongside Smith, praised its emphasis on apprenticeship programs, noting that “although other nations have enjoyed the benefits of apprenticeships for decades, apprenticeships remain underutilized in this country.” She said the bill is “a positive step in the right direction and is a recognition of the good work that the National Science Foundation is doing in this area.”
Bill builds on existing NSF programs
The bill directs NSF to use existing funds in its Education and Human Resources (EHR) Directorate to issue several types of grants focused on STEM workforce development and training activities in fiscal years 2018 through 2021.
One provision authorizes no less than $5 million per year over four years for grants to community colleges to “develop or improve” associate degree and certificate programs in high-demand STEM fields. A second provision authorizes at least $2.5 million per year over four years for grants to support universities that partner with employers “that commit to offering apprenticeships, internships, research opportunities, or applied learning experiences” to students pursuing four-year STEM degrees.
The February hearing highlighted how NSF currently funds a number of STEM workforce development programs at both two- and four-year education institutions, such as its Advanced Technological Education (ATE), Scholarships for STEM, Community College Innovation Challenge, and Cyber Corps programs.
This is not the first time that Congress has taken in interest in expanding NSF’s role in supporting such programs. The Scientific and Advanced-Technology Act of 1992 led NSF to create the ATE program, which supports two-year CTE programs in high-demand science and engineering fields.
At the bill markup, Research and Technology Subcommittee Ranking Member Dan Lipinski (D-IL) said the ATE program is “very significant” to advancing the STEM technical workforce. While he expressed disappointment that the bill does not specify increased resources for the program, currently funded at $66 million, he said the bill “is a step in the right direction.”
The bill also contains two research-focused provisions. First, it authorizes at least $2.5 million per year over four years for grants to support research on “best practices and scalability of computer-based and online courses for technical skills training.” It also would direct NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate to support research on the “efficiency of skilled technical labor markets” as well as analyses comparing skilled technical workforce development in the U.S. with that of other developed countries.
National Science Board examining skilled technical workforce
The National Science Board, the governing body for NSF, has ramped up efforts to address STEM workforce development needs, and formally adopted the phrase “skilled technical workforce” last November when it established a Task Force on the Skilled Technical Workforce. The board initially had considered framing the initiative in terms of “blue collar STEM,” but some board members expressed reservations about using that terminology.
Victor McCrary, the chair of the task force, was one of the witnesses at the February hearing. He stressed that advancing the skilled technical workforce is critical to changing the national conversation on STEM and summarized NSB’s recent policy statement on the subject.
Smith objects to amendment on integrating arts in STEM
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) authored the only two amendments offered on the bill. On a voice vote, the committee accepted her amendment adding language encouraging higher education institutions to partner with industry and business consortia.
The other amendment, which proposed language integrating the fields of art and design into STEM, faced opposition by Smith, who said:
Many subjects correspond to or overlap with STEM including art, music, and language. The inclusion of art in STEM, however, would dilute a national effort to build a robust technical workforce which remains an urgent national priority. In effect, if art is included, where does it end?
Bonamici, who co-chairs the bipartisan Congressional STEAM Caucus, said a growing number of education institutions and businesses are using the STEAM approach, as it “engages more students and makes learning more relevant.” She added the caucus had met with leaders from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Intel, who emphasized “they value creativity and innovation.”
While she ultimately withdrew the amendment, she said “I hope we can find a way to work together to promote a well-rounded workforce that is ready to meet the demands of our growing economy in the future.”