By Thomas Lichtenberger, CEO, Festo Didactic, Inc.
This is the final entry in a three-part series about closing the STEM skills gap. Previous installments covered what high school teachers and colleges and universities can do right now to better prepare students for jobs of the future.
STEM-related industries are on the rise. Driven by rapid technological advancements, jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are growing faster than overall employment. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economics and Statistics Administration, STEM occupations are expected to increase by 8.9 percent from 2014 to 2024. At first glance this would seem to be good news for employers, but these statistics come with a significant drawback: Despite these growing job numbers, employers are having difficulty filling available positions due to lack of applicants and lack of requisite skills among many who do apply. The result, as reported by the Brookings Institution, is that STEM jobs remain vacant twice as long as their non-STEM counterparts. Beyond the frustration of not filling these positions quickly, prolonged vacancies also create financial losses for companies. CareerBuilder found job vacancies of three months or longer can cost companies upwards of $14,000.
So, who or what is to blame? Some in the industry point the finger at educators, claiming secondary and postsecondary education systems are not doing enough to attract students to STEM fields and not providing appropriate skills training. However, educators may be unfairly targeted, because ever-tightening school budgets can make it nearly impossible for schools to keep up with the rapid pace of change in STEM industries.
Employers need to get involved, and there are plenty of avenues for them to do so. To help close the skills gap, employers can:
- Support local schools – There are myriad ways employers can support schools, including donating time, tools, and talent. Donating equipment to schools can help educators embrace hands-on STEM learning, which helps students to better comprehend challenging concepts. The University of Chicago found that students who engage in experiential learning understand scientific concepts more deeply and score better on science tests. By providing state-of-the-art training equipment for hands-on learning, employers can give students valuable, real-world experiences, providing them with an advantage for working in today’s factories, labs and offices. Companies can also support STEM-related student competitions by donating space, serving as judges or helping to organize such events. Other strategies for supporting schools include backing school initiatives and advocating for better funding, since STEM programs in secondary schools are often sacrificed when budgets are reduced.
- Share skills requirements – As technologies change, so too do the requirements for STEM-related careers. To help educators remain current on required skills, employers should be sure to share these new qualifications. If communication skills are important for today’s machinists or data visualization skills are essential to being a financial analyst, educators must be kept in the loop. The good news is that educators want to work with the business community. Over half of academics (54 percent) at colleges and universities say they are adjusting their curriculum based on the demands of local employers. Sharing job requirements is a mutually beneficial measure that helps ensure a qualified applicant pool.
- Serve as a source of expertise – Employers in any of the STEM-related fields have a depth of expertise and knowledge that educators and students alike would love to explore; yet many educators may not know how to go about accessing such a rich resource. By proactively offering their specific expertise, companies can form valuable relationships with local educators and advise on curricula or individual assignments in project- or competency-based education. Even simply speaking in classrooms allows companies to provide inspiration to students as they learn about the evolution of an industry or the “day in the life” of a particular profession. The more students learn about the exciting developments in STEM-related fields, the more impassioned they will be about pursuing such careers.
- Organize a field trip – Just as employers visiting classrooms can have a motivating impact, hosting students on-site at a company can also foster a passion for STEM. Facilitating visits to observe industry professionals as they perform in the workplace can help students to connect their studies to positive, real-world outcomes. Field trips can be an especially powerful tool for engagement in STEM among younger students by fostering their natural curiosity.
- Cultivate a capable pipeline – Employer involvement in STEM education can also extend beyond the classroom, creating a pipeline of skilled workers. Apprenticeships, for example, combine classroom learning with on-the-job experience, allowing students to not only apply their classroom theory at a job but also use their hands-on work experience to better understand their coursework. Employers also benefit from apprenticeships, which provide them with a low-risk return on investment in the form of future employees already up-to-speed on the required skills.
The STEM skills gap is real, and is on track to continue growing, but employers don’t have to watch passively from the sidelines. By investing time, skills, and resources to build strong STEM education-to-career pipelines, employers can be part of the solutions that close the gap. Some companies, such as Chevron, Dow Chemical and Texas Instruments, are already taking the initiative. However, true and tangible progress can only be made if more employers become proactive, ensuring not only the successful growth of STEM-related careers, but also their own continuing success as companies.
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/