STEM Education: Academic Program or Workforce Initiative? Part 2

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What everyone knows

If there’s anything about workforce development that people agree on, it’s that STEM jobs are the future. From policy-makers to industry leaders to family and friends, a general consensus holds that STEM education leads to desirable, reliable careers. But how do we actually know this? Is it actually right to point kids in the direction of STEM studies as a way to promote their future career prospects?

Maybe not so simple

In fact, there are various reasons to temper the tub-thumping for STEM education as a formula for career certainties. Putting STEM education to work in the service of promoting students’ future career prospects takes more than just plotting a straight line from math and science learning to AP classes to a STEM major to a solid, well-paying job. A look at some approaches to STEM-based workforce programs shows how complex the job can be.

Violently in agreement

To start with, of course, the idea that STEM education can serve workforce development needs holds wide sway.

These are just recent data points in the ongoing project to create mechanisms for ushering students into a funnel that starts with STEM education and ends with a STEM-related job.

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“So many degrees, so little demand”

Broad-brush efforts to promote STEM education as workforce development, though, obscure some underlying challenges. One question, for example, is whether or not there is even a need for more students with STEM degrees in the workforce.

A New York Times article from last November subtitled an examination of STEM jobs with the tag, “So Many Degrees, So Little Demand.” The main point of the article was that “STEM” jobs are predominantly available in “T” areas, i.e., computing and related fields. It went on to note that employment opportunities in STEM fields across the board registered at numbers far below the volume of undergraduate degrees granted in them.

Indeed, the links between any college major and an actual career path are tenuous. Only about a quarter of people employed actually work in a field substantially related to their major. From the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this visualization of employment data, for example, shows that 74 percent(!) of STEM degree holders work in non-STEM fields.

Reasons to plan carefully

And, as has often been said, predictions are hard to make, especially about the future. Learning to code, for example, is currently held out as a ready pathway to a future-proof career … except for the time soon to come when artificial intelligence will take over most coding tasks that people currently do.

The takeaway? Making decisions at either the policy or individual level about education options based on currently available jobs can backfire in unpredictable ways.

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Adjusting the view

A way out of this potential trap is to reframe the goal of workforce development programs away from particular careers and towards more broadly applicable skills. While “STEM” careers might or might not be available to students, “STEM” skills will serve them well no matter what kinds of adjustments and course corrections they will inevitably need to make in their work lives.

This position is the one taken by some of the leading voices in STEM education-workforce development discussion.

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce has argued:

The concern for STEM shortages tends to focus on the possibility of an insufficient supply of STEM workers, but the deeper problem is a broader scarcity of workers with basic STEM competencies across the entire economy. Demand for the core competencies is far greater than the 5 percent traditional STEM employment share suggests, and stretches across the entire U.S. job market, touching virtually every industry. (2)

And a report from a workshop at the National Academies on the topic observes:

For example, instead of asking how many degree holders in the computer sciences are needed to fill a given number of jobs, it might be better to ask what skills and capabilities do all students need to maximize their career options, or what continuing education opportunities do incumbent workers need to thrive over the course of a career amid changing workplace conditions. (16)

The technical details

The same report identified four main pieces that an effective STEM-based workforce development program would feature:

  • Core academic content across varied disciplines
  • Technical, career-oriented courses taught in project-based, multidisciplinary fashion
  • Real-world work experiences each year in high school
  • Supplemental, individualized instruction in students’ weaker areas, along with postsecondary and career counseling

To cap it all off, it would be helpful to have a tool to determine if students are actually acquiring “basic STEM competencies” in a workforce-oriented STEM program. Into this breach, a long-running, NSF-funded program called Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) has stepped with a rubric for assessing how well a program is doing with inculcating STEM skills. Part of the STEM Learning and Research Center, ITEST pioneered an assessment tool that encompasses academic learning, skills development, real-world work exposures, problem-solving, and student engagement levels.

The payoff

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This approach to STEM-based workforce development establishes at its core a focus on student learning and empowerment. Instead of training in the narrow needs of a particular occupation, it serves to develop durable, widely applicable capacities that can travel with students through their lives as workers, citizens, and private selves. That sounds like an investment in the future with a return for all of us.

Your views?

What kinds of STEM-based workforce programs do you know of? Do you think they’re effective? What do they do well or not well? Please let us know. And do share with interested colleagues or friends.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

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Credits: STEM skills slide, courtesy of Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.