Children attending science and engineering expo look at infrared images of themselves. (Photo Credit: JC Delgadillo/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
The salaries of Silicon Valley tech interns have grabbed headlines recently but the bigger story of educating California’s next science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce is ever present.
STEM jobs hold the promise of consistently low unemployment rates and high salaries, yet finding people skilled enough to fill vacancies has been increasingly difficult in recent years.
“We need to really change the narrative around STEM education and make sure that kids not only know that it’s an option, but are encouraged to pursue it,” said Lily Gossage, director of Maximizing Engineering Potential at Cal Poly Pomona.
Gossage, who is currently completing a Ph.D. in Higher Education, M.A. in Cross-cultural Teaching, and holds an M.Ed. in Educational Management and B.S. in Medical Microbiology with a Minor in Chemistry, believes that the interest in STEM fields must be supported not only in higher education, but all the way through elementary schooling.
“These sectors are only growing. So we have to cultivate interest through our students at an early age,” Gossage added.
As high school students advance in their studies, the likelihood that they will pursue these fields significantly decreases, according to a 2013 report. STEMconnector, a education consortium, evaluated the points at which students are most interested in STEM careers and more specifically when that number changes.
“High school seniors are about 10 percent less likely than high school freshman to declare an interest in a STEM-related fields – just over 21 percent of high school seniors indicated interest in STEM,” the report said. “Only half of those students migrate to a STEM-related college major or career.”
Although California is the home of Silicon Valley and is at the top of the list for best places for STEM grads, the state numbers reflect the low national averages of young people pursuing these fields.
“The problem is the rates of persisting in STEM have not changed and improved,” said Mitchell Chang, a professor of higher education and organizational change at the UCLA, told USA Today. “Forty percent of students are leaving the major within four, five years.”
Yet, more evidence keeps surfacing showing the inability to quickly fill STEM jobs persists due to a lack of qualified applicants.
The Brookings Institute released a report last week calculating the amount of time that it takes to fill a STEM-related position compared to non-STEM jobs. The findings showed the median duration of advertising for a STEM position is almost twice as long as a non-STEM vacancy.
“For STEM openings requiring a Ph.D. or other professional degree, advertisements last an average of 50 days, compared to 33 days for all non-STEM vacancies,” the report said. “Professional STEM vacancies take longer to fill now than before the recession, while vacancies for lower-skilled occupations remain much easier to fill.”
The STEM job ads in the San Jose metro area sported the most valuable skill requirements in the country, worth an average of $68,000. Yet, the ads for that region also were posted for the second longest average duration in the U.S.
Occupations with the lowest advertisement durations had few educational requirements, making the pool of potential workers larger; however, they also offer the lowest wages.
Income revenues for those employed in STEM fields are on average $18,000 more annually than non-STEM employees, according to a Beacon Economics report (PDF). The data translates to STEM grads earning 23 percent more than non-STEM grads during their lifetime.
To fill in the skills gap and reap the benefits of these in-demand, high-paying job openings, the Brookings report concludes states should try to connect labor market data with spending on training and education. And increasing support for regional sector partnerships to prepare workforce for high-demand fields, including STEM fields, is one of the primary goals for 2014 for the California Economic Summit’s Workforce Action Team.
While a STEM career path isn’t for everyone, it’s increasingly important for the state economy that career pathways for in-demand fields of all kinds are well-defined and available for students across all regions of California.