A recent study by The Council on Foreign Relations cites the growing inability for the US educational system to properly prepare students for careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) related sciences. This failure to properly prepare the newly graduated generation of workers has resulted in a notable gap of applicants for jobs in fields vital to maintaining economic competitiveness. This pinch is first felt by technology companies at the local level, seeking to hire, though stymied by the shrinking number of qualified applicants for the growing number of vacant positions- though this is just the private sector.
Contrast this with the fact that, over the last 50 years, “taxpayer investment in technology and STEM education has created more than half of the nation’s (United States’) economic growth” (Ayora Berry, 2012), while 2.6 million jobs in fields “like healthcare, aerospace, advanced precision manufacturing, scientific laboratory occupations, and computer-related design, are unfilled, according to a May 2010 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report”.
As the United States grapples with an economic recession alongside the rest of the global economy, what steps can be taken to ensure the 2.6 million job vacancies, existing in arguably the most profitable sectors of the economy, don’t travel abroad to more educationally prepared markets? Furthermore, what of vacancies among defense contractors who are left unable to hire citizens, or, due to issues relating to national security clearance, applicants from abroad?
In the past, partnerships were made between large scale industries, dependent on a well educated workforce, which invested in college and university programs to help facilitate the proper education of the next crop of graduating members of their prospective workforce. According to Marjorie Censer’s article in the Washington Post, “many are beginning to broaden their approach ….. ‘diversifying their investments,’ from looking beyond college students to kids in Middle and High Schools” says James Brown, executive director of the STEM Education Coalition”.
By focusing on the younger generation of students, companies are looking to ensure students are prepared with the math and science skills necessary to excel in careers rooted in STEM related skills. In this way, Brown notes “[companies are betting] that if we make the pipeline stronger there, it will have ripple effects upwards.” Censer notes a three pronged approach the private sector is making to increase the flow of prepared graduates into the labor market for the future: 1- Making it fun; 2- Keeping kids in the classroom and; 3- paying for school.
1- Make it Fun
One example is Northrop Grumman Foundation, which is sponsoring academic contests, in an attempt to make math and science knowledge a place of competition- the way sports are. By competing in robot building tournaments, students not only remain engaged and inspired by technology, they learn invaluable skills early, in high demand fields like electrical and computer engineering.
2- Kids in the Classroom
Similarly, Neustar, has decided to directly invest in the classroom- fostering digital literacy courses in public and private schools in Virginia and Kentucky. Similarly, Northrop Grumman has invested directly into educational syllabi, sponsoring an Eco-Classroom enriching the curriculum by sending teachers to Costa Rica for two weeks to collect data on ecosystems and the climate, bringing their science classes to life when they return.
3- Paying for School
In order to ensure increased accessibility to education, Lockheed Martin has given more than $1.1 million in grants to organizations that provide STEM related scholarships. Similarly, Lockheed-Martin gives nearly $13 million annually to help subsidize the cost of education, making higher education more attainable for students, who would be unable to participate and reap the benefits education provides for otherwise.
One role the public sector can take to promote economic growth is by ensuring the coming generation is prepared academically to enter industries that will power the coming economic recovery. This can especially be seen in the United States, where government is stepping up government intervention. To ensure continued economic competitiveness, investments are being made directly in early education, strengthening STEM related skills which will enable the next generation of innovators to gain the skills necessary to compete for the jobs of the future.
Unveiling the Investing in Innovation (or I3) grant as part of President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – or stimulus- the Department of Education is seeking to sponsor innovative ways of “improving student achievement and attainment in order to expand the implementation of, and investment in, innovative practices that are demonstrated to have an impact on improving student achievement or student growth, closing achievement gaps, decreasing dropout rates, increasing high school graduation rates, or increasing college enrollment and completion rates.”
The I3 grant disburses anywhere between $3-$25 million dollars with an eye to helping develop new practices that improve student performance and graduation rates. Among its primary targets are STEM related sciences, demonstrating the growing need among both the private and public sector to assist in the development of long term strategies and innovative technologies that help students succeed.
If there is anything we can agree on, it’s that the state of education is far from the level where it should be performing at. However, by witnessing the coming together of private companies, small business and social entrepreneurs in coordination with government assistance, strides can be made in closing the achievement gap among the workforce of tomorrow. Where we need to start is today, beginning with K-12 education- today, more than ever, it’s clear that no one can do it alone and that it indeed takes a village.