The Importance Of STEM In Higher Education

August 27, 2014 8:00 AM

Photo Credit Thinkstock

Photo Credit Thinkstock

Nearly a decade ago, the alarm was raised. The “Rising above the Gathering Storm” report, commissioned by the U.S. Congress, warned that America will fall behind in the global economy if its education system doesn’t produce more workers with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, through 2018, openings in STEM-related occupations will grow 7 percent more than openings in non-STEM fields.The importance of majoring in STEM fields

While the number of Americans earning college degrees is at an all-time high, only one-third of these degrees are in STEM fields. With the growth rate of these jobs rapidly outstripping the growth rate of jobs in general, a lopsided talent picture emerges, threatening the ability of the United States to remain an innovation leader.

New initiatives to skill-up American workers

Just as the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 initiated a drive in the U.S. to educate more scientists and engineers, the 21st century’s rapid advances in technology have spurred initiatives to skill-up the American workforce. States are beefing up STEM education at the elementary and secondary level by adopting tougher standards. Colleges, universities and technical schools have responded by working with the tech industry to develop new STEM programs.

In 2010, State University of New York’s Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) opened its TECH-SMART facility in response to the need for skilled workers created by the opening of Global Foundry’s semiconductor plant in nearby Malta, NY.  The state-of-the-art training center attracts local high school students for training in semiconductor manufacturing and green technologies.

On the West Coast, University of California at Merced opened a STEM resource center to support students enrolled in STEM programs. According to a Georgetown University study, while 13 percent of student who enter post-secondary institutions begin in STEM, only 6 percent graduate with STEM degrees. The report cites the difficulty of STEM programs as one possible reason for this diversion. UC Merced’s STEM resource center offers undergraduates access to  tutors, mentors and personal advisers to help them acclimate to the rigors of STEM college work.

STEM competencies in high demand in all fields

Some argue that the STEM workforce shortage is overstated or non-existent. A May 2014 study by the Center for Immigration analyzed Census data to compare STEM employment and STEM-trained workers. The Center concludes there is no shortage. A direct comparison of STEM-degrees conferred to job postings would seem to confirm these findings. Those that do enter college with strong skills, and complete STEM programs, often end up in jobs outside of STEM fields.

Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce attributes this to the transferable nature of STEM skills to non-STEM occupations. STEM competencies — advanced problem-solving and critical thinking skills, for example — are highly desired in managerial and professional occupations, areas that are outside the strict definition of STEM fields. Technology and science industries must compete with other industries for these skilled workers. STEM graduates will find their degrees build a strong resume for positions in retail marketing, education, finance and insurance. Physical laborers, such as maintenance and repair technicians, need certain STEM knowledge and skills.

Undeniable benefits of a STEM education

Even students that have no interest in pursuing STEM careers in medicine, engineering, architecture or computer programming will be severely handicapped in any field if they lack fundamental knowledge in math and technology. The 21st century workplace increasingly relies on workers with strong computer and mathematical reasoning skills. College-bound students would be wise to seek some advanced education in STEM areas to increase their options in the job market.

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Gillian Burdett is a freelance writer covering all things home and living. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.

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