A common refrain at the U.S. News & World Report STEM Solutions 2012 leadership summit in Dallas, Texas, last week was that, despite there being nearly 14 million unemployed people in the United States, American companies simply cannot find workers skilled enough in math and technology to fill an estimated 3 million permanent job openings. The solution, according to the majority of experts present at the summit, is to inspire student interest in science, technology, engineering, and math and provide better STEM education. Almost entirely absent in the talks, however, were discussions about what companies could do to make the available jobs more attractive to jobseekers or to train the current crop of unemployed workers to perform STEM-related tasks.

Some experts told the audience that many people in today's workforce lack the critical-thinking skills and learning ability necessary to be trainable for high-skill jobs—hence the so-called skills gap that has been in the news lately. There was no mention of the current glut of Ph.D.s that outnumber the few permanent positions available in academia.

However, others in attendance doubted whether such a skills gap actually exists—or suggested that its existence is more nuanced than a simple lack of skilled workers—and said that many companies' hiring practices may in part be to blame for their inability to find skilled workers.

A national problem

Courtesy of Microsoft
Brad Smith

U.S. News & World Report billed the event as the first ever national STEM conference. During the opening keynote address, former NBA basketball star and U.S. global cultural ambassador Kareem Abdul-Jabbar set the tone for the summit: In order for the United States to stay economically competitive with emerging markets in China, India, and elsewhere, it will have to overhaul its education system to increase its focus on critical thinking and on applied science, math, and tech skills.

Johanna Duncan-Poitier, senior vice chancellor for community colleges and the education pipeline for the State University of New York, administratively based in Albany, reiterated a point that is commonly raised in discussions about the STEM workforce: Jobs are available, but job-seekers largely don't have the skills needed to fill them. "Today, there are 140,000 positions within the top 30 Fortune 500 companies that go unfilled for lack of STEM graduates," she said. She also cited a commonly used statistic that U.S. employers will require an additional million workers trained in STEM within 10 years.

Duncan-Poitier says that to fix the employment gap, the United States needs to graduate more people with a STEM education. The majority of those who spoke at the conference's various keynote sessions voiced similar opinions. Brad Smith, who is Microsoft's general counsel and executive vice president of legal and corporate affairs and based in Redmond, Washington, said, "Unless we close the skills gap, we're not going to fully address the employment gap."

According to Rick Stephens, senior vice president of human resources and administration at Boeing, which is based in Chicago, Illinois, companies have been caught unprepared and are now scrambling to devise ways to train more people in STEM. Back in the ’90s, "it was very simply a math exercise: People are getting older, fewer students are pursuing STEM, big gap expected,” he said. But “it came true [earlier than] a lot of us had expected." A large part of it is due to fewer students choosing to pursue STEM fields in college because of a dropping interest in science and math in recent years, said Karen Gardner, director of human resources at the Albequerque, New Mexico, campus of Sandia National Laboratories.

CREDIT: U.S. News and World Report
Rick Stephens

An expanding gap

Just what kinds of skills are job-seekers missing? The answers are somewhat vague, and they vary from expert to expert. Many bemoan a lack of general mathematical literacy. Stephens said that the ability to apply knowledge to real-world situations is missing in many students—an apparent consequence of relaxed standards in the American educational system and a focus in the classroom on passing standardized tests, he said.

What jobs the companies say are available was equally vague, but it was clear from the discussion that the majority of these are not Ph.D.-level positions for research scientists within academia or industry. According to Smith, unemployment rates for people with Ph.D.s or engineering degrees are miniscule compared with those who lack any kind of degree in a STEM field. Therefore, he added, the focus should be on filling what are largely technician-level jobs. Many of these positions are in manufacturing, where the jobs today require a sophisticated understanding of robotics and assembly-line computer programming, the panelists said.

U.S. workers do have an edge when it comes to high-tech productivity, thoroughness, access to raw materials, and distribution networks, said Eric Spiegel, president and CEO of Siemens USA, based in Washington, D.C. This has encouraged global companies such as Siemens to shift at least some manufacturing jobs to plants in the United States. But what seems to be lacking is quantity. "When we started to bring a lot of the higher-technology plants over here, we had trouble finding enough skilled labor for those plants. … For most of the plants we're building today, everything is run by a computer, a robot, or a laser. And so the production workers in that plant need be very highly skilled, very sophisticated."

STEM solutions

Many of the solutions that experts proposed centered on drumming up interest in STEM-related careers, improving STEM education in K-12, and creating partnerships between industry, universities, and community colleges to offer training opportunities for students.

Lewis Hay, executive chair of NextEra Energy, based in Juno Beach, Florida, stated that young students often don't know what jobs a STEM education can lead to, and so acquiring math and science skills doesn’t interest them. The U.S. government and companies should sponsor programs designed to show young people that STEM jobs can be rewarding, he said.

Stephens suggested creating a program incentivizing engineers—how was left unclear—to become high school teachers so they can instill critical thinking and real-world problem-solving skills in students. Others suggested that industry work with local schools to develop curricula geared toward companies' needs. A panel of experts from several U.S. Department of Energy–affiliated national labs also suggested that scientists from government labs partner with schools to incorporate STEM skills and topics even in non-STEM classes.

One thing was clear from the talks: Most companies are focused on increasing the supply of workers with STEM education, but few are doing much to improve demand for such jobs, either by raising salaries for STEM jobs or implementing programs to make these jobs more attractive. During the summit, Science Careers asked a panel of industry leaders and university administrators about what efforts were being made to increase interest in these jobs on the demand side, and Hay responded that the jobs available are already "extraordinarily high-paying jobs" but that “students just aren't aware of the jobs."

Other opinions

However, others at the conference noted that companies can and should be doing more to help existing job-seekers acquire needed skills or find suitable job openings through a combination of novel hiring practices and workplace training. Melinda Hamilton, director of Idaho National Laboratory's education programs in Idaho Falls, agreed that there is a need to improve teaching of critical thinking and promote STEM education, but she argued that companies need to keep up their end of the bargain. They must make explicit the skills they need and be realistic about the numbers and types of jobs that will be available in coming years, she said. “Industry really needs to engage in a much closer relationship with educational institutions," she tells Science Careers. "They have to share their strategic plans. They have to share their growth projections and why they're predicting this area will grow. They have to be involved in saying not just 'Here's what we need,' but also how we get it.”

Merrilea Mayo, founder of the science consulting firm Mayo Enterprises in Washington, D.C., and former director of the U.S. National Academies' Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable, was one of the few keynote speakers to call on companies to change their approach to hiring. Rather than sifting through résumés and choosing candidates primarily based on the types of degrees they've earned, she advocates for a system known as skills-based hiring.

CREDIT: U.S. News and World Report
Merrilea Mayo

Under this system, she tells Science Careers, employers work with independent firms to profile their available positions according to the types of skills needed. The firms assign point values (from 1 to 7 in ACT's profiling system, for example) to the skills needed, with potential employees then taking an aptitude test. Employers can then look for candidates whose skill sets best match the skill profiles for available jobs.

If the hiring projects she's worked on so far are an indication, the results usually yield far better employer-employee matches than typically occur with more traditional hiring systems, Mayo says. The Buckman Regional Water Treatment Plant in Santa Fe, for example, recently filled all of its open positions according to those profiles, and "not a single person quit, was fired, or left the job in the first year.”

But the results can sometimes be a little unorthodox, Mayo added. “They found some people they really didn't expect to find." One employee they hired was someone who had dropped out of high school to support his family and later earned a GED. He then went to—and dropped out of—community college. "And this guy turned out to score a 7 in applied math. He would have been completely overlooked and he's working there now."

These kinds of success stories raise the question of whether a skills gap really exists at all, Mayo says, or whether there's just a fundamental mismatch in the way companies hire for open positions and the way potential employees present their skills. If that's the case, she said, it's still important to boost STEM education for students—if for no other reason than the wide and flexible range of employment options such training gives students—but the situation may be far less dire than many within industry predict. The workers they need may have been here all along.

Michael Price is a staff writer at Science Careers.

Michael Price is a staff writer for Science Careers.