National Science Board Aims to Shift Views of Technical Careers

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Publication date: 
18 September 2019
Number: 
79

With a new report, the National Science Board is seeking to raise awareness of jobs that involve substantial STEM skills but do not require four-year degrees. It calls for dispelling negative perceptions of such roles and illuminating the pathways into this “underappreciated” segment of the U.S. workforce.

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Skilled Technical Workforce Cover

(Image credit – Darryl Estrine / NSF)

The National Science Board (NSB) has issued a new report calling on federal agencies and their partners to bolster support for the skilled technical workforce (STW), which is defined as comprising workers whose jobs involve science or engineering skills but do not require a four-year degree. Foremost among the board’s recommendations is to “address misperceptions and lack of awareness” about such jobs and to highlight their importance for U.S. global competitiveness.

About 17 million people currently fall within the STW category, according to the report, with the U.S. facing a potential shortfall of 3 million workers in the area by 2022. The board first began discussing undertaking an initiative on technical workers in early 2017 and held several listening sessions around the country to inform its work. Victor McCrary, the board member who chaired the study, remarked in a press release, “For too long this crucial segment of our STEM workforce has been underappreciated.”

Multiple pathways into STEM workforce stressed

NSB serves as both the governing board of the National Science Foundation and an advisory panel on STEM policy for the president and Congress.

It has long sought to draw attention to the broad range of educational pathways for STEM jobs and its report builds on its 2015 study on “Revisiting the STEM Workforce” and its 2018 policy statement on the importance of developing a “STEM-capable” workforce.

“Since our 2015 report, the need for a STEM-capable U.S. workforce at all educational levels has become more apparent — and urgent,” the board states. “We must ‘step up’ our game and nurture and expand our domestic talent along the entire science and engineering worker-value chain from the STW to the Ph.D.”

Based on the listening sessions, the board reports it encountered many students who did not become aware of STW career options until well after they had graduated from high school. It also observes, “The cultural emphasis on four-year educational pathways has created the unintended consequence of portraying two-year and four-year post-secondary educational pathways as oppositional.”

The report offers some data on the demographics of the STW workforce, while noting more data will be forthcoming in a report on the science and engineering workforce as a whole.

According to the report, the STW is the most diverse segment of the STEM workforce in the U.S., with Hispanic and Black Americans represented at rates comparable to their proportion of the overall workforce. However, except in healthcare fields, there is a significant gender disparity, as women constituted only 27% of the STW in 2017.

The board observes that because STW jobs are widely distributed geographically and tend to pay better than other jobs requiring comparable education, they are a pathway to economic mobility. They can also serve as a potential stepping stone to jobs requiring additional STEM education.

“In today’s environment where post-secondary work and educational pathways are less linear than they were several decades ago and where options for post-secondary education and career preparation have proliferated, skilled technical education and employment are important ends in themselves as well as a launching pad for further STEM study,” the board states.

NSF encouraged to ‘lead by example’

The board focuses its recommendations on NSF while noting the agency can “lead by example.” It encourages NSF to collect nationally representative data on the STW workforce and develop a better understanding of how the agency already supports relevant training efforts.

NSF’s principal support for the STW comes through its Advanced Technological Education program, which helps educate technicians at institutions that offer two-year degrees. Given that NSF’s other contributions to the STW are less well known, the board suggests NSF conduct a portfolio analysis of its investments in areas such as research on K–12 education and the future of work to build awareness of funding opportunities and better leverage its investments.

The report also highlights how the STW has contributed to recent scientific achievements, noting the role technical workers played in the detection of gravitational waves. It spotlights David Barker, a vacuum technician at NSF’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, who is responsible for maintaining delicate laser equipment at precise temperatures.

The report recounts, “A temperature change of one-degree Fahrenheit would cause the laser to lose lock, forcing a shutdown and halting data collection. David playfully notes that he tells people that he is ‘a famous air conditioning man.’”

Interest at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue

The board also highlights policymakers’ current interest in promoting the STW.

In particular, it notes Congress’ passage of the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act and the Innovations in Mentoring, Training, and Apprenticeships Act in 2018.

The White House also released a five-year strategic plan for STEM education last year that includes a focus on the STW. In addition, its R&D priorities memorandum for the administration’s next budget request calls out building the STW as an important cross-cutting activity.

White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Kelvin Droegemeier, a former NSB member, praised the board’s work in a statement,

“This report provides a critical roadmap to develop the U.S. technically skilled workforce and places important emphasis on an enterprise-wide approach that leverages federal programs, the private sector, and academic institutions,” he wrote.

About the Authors

Adria Schwarber and Mitch Ambrose
American Institute of Physics
aschwarber [at] aip.org and mambrose [at] aip.org
(301) 209-3083