By Thomas Lichtenberger, CEO, Festo Didactic, Inc.
This is part two in a three-part series about closing the STEM skills gap. Parts 1 and 3, about what high school teachers and employers, respectively, can do to prepare students for the jobs of the future, are available here and here.
Jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) offer today’s college students opportunities to enter in-demand and innovative careers. Yet not enough of them are choosing STEM as a career path, and employers are struggling to fill available jobs. At the same time, according to a recent study from the Brookings Institution, employers report that those who do apply for available STEM positions lack the specific skills needed for industry jobs. These two problems – a shortage of workers and a lack of specific skills among existing applicants – make up what is commonly known as the STEM skills gap.
Colleges and universities have an important role to play in addressing this challenge, especially as a college degree is frequently part of hiring requirements in STEM fields. In fact, more than two-thirds of professionals working in STEM have at least a college degree, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
As higher education serves an increasing role in building the STEM employee pipeline, colleges and universities can explore new ways to teach, train and guide students in STEM fields. Here are actionable items colleges and universities can implement now to help close the STEM skills gap:
- Connect with local industry experts — While STEM instructors are knowledgeable in their fields, it is important to tap outside resources, namely local industry experts, to help expose students to the skills they will need to enter the workforce upon graduation. On a smaller scale, instructors can ask employers to visit the classroom and talk with students. On a larger scale, universities and colleges should assemble a curriculum directory board of local industry professionals to weigh in on what should be taught in the classroom. Forging these connections now ensures that students will be ready to enter in-demand occupations in the future.
- Invest in innovative technology for students — Hands-on learning is important at every stage of education. For college students, this means getting exposure to the procedures, tools and technology they will work with when they enter a STEM career. Utilizing training equipment that resembles real-world labs gives students an idea of what their future careers might encompass and the advantage they need to confidently enter the workforce. Whether it is through grants, direct funding from the school or agreements with local employers, colleges and universities need to invest in technology that will help graduates be successful when they transition into their occupations.
- Integrate apprenticeships — The apprenticeship model has long been a part of postsecondary education in countries such as Germany, but the United States has yet to fully embrace this valuable training technique. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, approximately 505,000 apprentices currently participate in a U.S. program, which is roughly 3 percent of the number of students enrolled in an undergraduate program. More institutions should build partnerships with employers to create apprenticeship opportunities. This will allow students majoring in STEM subjects to get early job experience and put the theory they learn in the classroom to practical use while they are still in school.
- Emphasize soft skills — Graduates will not get placed in jobs if they are missing the skills they need to successfully navigate the workplace. Being adept in critical thinking, problem solving, and working well with others are just as important as being knowledgeable in STEM subjects. From nailing a first job interview to communicating safety protocols and managing other team members, soft skills are paramount for future STEM workers. Further, developing soft skills will prepare students to take on challenges not previously encountered such as the convergence of different disciplines with new technologies. Educators need to make sure that their curricula help build these talents alongside the technical skills and knowledge it takes to work in STEM.
- Introduce students to “new collar” STEM jobs —It is important for instructors to expose students to the vast landscape of STEM jobs and careers. Faculty and higher education leadership can help students and their families move beyond traditional categories of blue collar and white collar positions, recognize the possibilities of growing “new collar” jobs, and identify positions that are in-demand but may not require a four-year degree. Advanced manufacturing, for example, is in great need of STEM professionals to meet the demand of today’s smart factories. However, a report from the Manufacturing Institute shows that outdated perceptions of manufacturing careers persist. It is up to college instructors, advisors and career guidance counselors to give students a full picture of the STEM job opportunities available to them.
To prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow, educators and employers alike should work together to improve and strengthen the connection between education and industry. Utilizing collective resources (on and off campus) gives students real-world insight and training, which will better equip them to hit the ground running upon graduation, and, in turn, help make bigger strides in closing the STEM skills gap.
About Festo Didactic
Festo Didactic is a leading provider of technical education equipment and training. Festo’s educational solutions evolved from its world-class automation and engineering division and integrates the latest trends in each learning system it offers. The innovative product range from Festo allows educators and trainers to equip their classroom with the technology they need, from individual workstations to complete Learning Factories, as well as training and consulting, eLearning, courseware solutions, and LMS integration. For more information visit https://www.festo-didactic.com/int-en/