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STEM Picks Up Steam

Recently, I’ve written several blog entries on fields that are likely to experience growth now that priorities for the U.S. economy are shifting. These are the fields that are covered in my book 200 Best Jobs for Renewing America. I also will be discussing these fields as a featured speaker at the 2010 Careers Conference, hosted by the Center on Education and Work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

These are the six specific fields:

  • Education
  • Infrastructure
  • Health care
  • Green technologies
  • Information and communications technologies
  • Advanced manufacturing

The first three are pillars of the economy and enable other sectors of the economy to function and create jobs (and they also create jobs in their own right); the other three are fields that need to expand rapidly to provide good jobs that cannot be exported.

If these fields are to prosper, they will require skilled workers. So let’s stand back from this listing and consider: What skills will workers need to fill the jobs within these fields? The skills will vary, of course, but the most commonly shared skills will be in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology—what is commonly referred to by the acronym STEM. STEM skills may be relatively unimportant in many education careers, but not in all, and they are crucial in the other five fields. In other words, they are crucial for America’s future economic competitiveness.

Therefore, I was greatly heartened to learn that this week President Obama launched the "Educate to Innovate" campaign, a nationwide effort to boost STEM achievement by America’s students. "Reaffirming and strengthening America’s role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation is essential to meeting the challenges of this century," said President Obama. (The former English composition teacher in me wishes he had said "are" instead of "is.") "That’s why I am committed to making the improvement of STEM education over the next decade a national priority."

The President’s goals for the campaign are not just to help American students match the STEM performance of students in other countries. Another goal is "increasing STEM literacy so all students can think critically in science, math, engineering, and technology." Presently, one-quarter of Americans say they "do not believe in evolution," and over one-third have "no opinion either way" regarding it; for progress in the life sciences, we need every student to have a good understanding of the fundamental principles of biology. (For example, we would have no effective flu shots without Darwin’s insights.)

Still another goal for the campaign is "expanding STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women and minorities." The pipeline of learners who prepare for careers in STEM leaks women and minorities at each level of achievement. For example, although women earn nearly half of bachelors’ degrees in math, they earn only 27% of doctoral degrees. Of all African Americans working in professional specialties, 80 percent were working in STEM fields in 2000, but by 2004 that percentage had declined to 69.

Interest in STEM careers, as evidenced by choice of college majors, has flagged in recent years among both sexes and all ethnic groups, while interest in business careers has grown. I think one important reason is the rapidly climbing cost of college. Students with bachelor’s degrees graduate with an average debt of between $15,000 and $20,000. They think their best strategy, therefore, is to prepare for a business career, where they expect many opportunities for high income. The business world also has high prestige now.

Of course, STEM careers also offer many opportunities for high income and prestige.

My publisher, JIST, is encouraging interest in STEM careers by including a volume about these occupations in the four-volume set Progressive Careers, which is scheduled for release in autumn of 2010. I’m currently helping my colleague Dave Anderson write that volume, so this week’s presidential press conference was very heartening news.