How to Build a Stronger Global STEM Talent Marketplace

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Written by Anders Hedberg, Guest Contributor

The STEM talent pipeline starts in the home of pre-K students and ends in the workplace, but much is lost on the way. Prognostics about future talent needs will force us to plug some leaks and increase the flow, particularly with emphasis on K-12 education.

Since 2000, the OECD has provided comparative information about high school graduates’ readiness for life in 60 countries though PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) reports on student skills in reading, math, science, and problem solving, released every three years. TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, NCES) adds a picture of progress in 4th and 8th grade student achievement in science and math, also comparing 60 nations, but in four-year increments. Both studies rank countries on all outcomes, and education analysts have flocked to nations that consistently come out on top. Much has therefore been written about Singapore, Japan, and Finland, but little about the low performing nations. They are left to figure out how to catch up, which is heavy lifting since the variations are huge.

OECD and NCES have helped guide our attention to the importance of knowledge and skills of particular importance for the future workforce, namely Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Pulling in the same direction, Academies of Science in Australia, Chile, France, Sweden, the U.S., and other nations have led IBSE (Inquiry-Based Science Education) initiatives in partnership with organizations like the US-Mexico Science Foundation (FUMEC), the Smithsonian Institution, and a number of multinational corporations with support from EC, NSF and World Bank, among others. It is now widely accepted that IBSE leads to increased student interest and learning of science.

Does this mean that we are beginning to close the workforce skills gap? In one word, no. A recent survey by the OECD of adult skills in 20 countries offers a sobering perspective on literacy, numeracy, and problem solving skills with which 16-65 year-olds are able to contribute to workplace productivity:

  • Between 5 and 28 percent of adults are at the lowest literacy skill levels, and 8 to 32 percent are at the same numeracy skill level. Between 7 and 23 percent have no experience with, or lack the basic skills needed to use information/communication technology for many everyday tasks. Only 3 to 9 percent of adults in technology-rich environments have the highest problem solving skills.
  • Skill levels in all areas are directly correlated with likelihood of employment and pay level.
  • Persons with low literacy skills more often report poor health and little impact on the political process.
  • Poor education and lack of opportunities to improve skills combine to create a vicious cycle in which low proficiency leads to even fewer opportunities and vice versa. Not surprisingly, this skills deficit is reflected in a 2013 survey of Fortune 1000 recruiters. Many report difficulty in finding qualified candidates with a 2-year STEM college degree (55 percent) or a four-year degree (50 percent). Sixty-eight percent have vacant four-year STEM degree positions and 48 percent report two-year STEM degree vacancies. The majority (75 percent) project that ten years from now, there will be more new STEM jobs than non-STEM jobs, leading to a worsening of the talent shortage.

Is STEM education important for workplace skill development and productivity? Innovation is frequently hailed as a driver of business productivity and economic growth. In 1996 OECD stated in its Jobs Strategy: Technology, Productivity and Job Creation report: “To realize the full potential of technological change in improving economy-wide productivity, growth and job creation, governments need to make innovation and technology diffusion policies an integral part of overall economic policy”.

The Opportunity Equation, a 2009 call to action by the Carnegie Corporation and the Institute for Advanced Study emphasized the urgency to reform STEM education and strengthen U.S. innovation capacity. “Knowledge and skills from the so-called STEM fields are crucial to virtually every endeavor of individual and community life.”

Later that year, President Obama launched the Educate to Innovate Campaign for Excellence in STEM Education. “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. That’s why I am committed to making the improvement of STEM education over the next decade a national priority.”

Innovation is now a ubiquitous element in the measurement of productivity, and no longer restricted to economically privileged nations, as shown by the annually published Global Innovation Index, Cornell University, INSEAD, and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). In large part this is attributable to the Global Partnership for Education, funded by the World Bank.

Biggest jumps in the GII rankings from 2012 to 2013 (of 142 Nations)

Country GII 2012 rank GII 2013 rank Jump
Uganda 117 89 +28
Costa Rica 60 39 +21
Bolivia 114 95 +19
Cambodia 129 110 +19
Mexico 79 63 +16
Uruguay 67 52 +15
Indonesia 100 85> +15
Ecuador 98 <83 +15

The 2013 OECD Science, Technology, and Industry Scoreboard reports that nations and people have become more interdependent than ever before. Countries rely increasingly on imports from other nations to maintain or improve their export performance and consumers in one country sustain jobs in countries further up the value chain. International institutional R&D collaboration networks are expanding and researcher mobility is increasing, helping to fuel the innovation power and economic growth in emerging economies.

So, we agree on how to sustain global innovation. What about the early innovation talent pipeline?

This intense international collaboration and exchange in advanced talent preparation and innovation stand in stark contrast to the tentative cross-border exchange and collaboration in K-12 education—the early pipeline for innovation talent. Yet, there is a clear positive correlation between domestic spending on primary/secondary education and national wealth, a fact often cited in arguments for urgent improvement of K-12 education in the face of economic challenge.

Interest is growing in education practices of leading innovation nations, such as the German apprenticeship model and the Finnish teacher preparation system. However, quick fixes through emulation of these best practices of nurturing talent will be difficult since they are deeply rooted in culture and tradition through many generations with high values of education and mastery of craftsmanship skills.

We must not let this discourage us. PISA, TIMSS, and other multinational studies offer priceless guidance. Even in the face of needs for normative change and cultural shift, which takes time, nations that now fail to offer K-12 students effective education, must learn from the global community through collaboration and exchange. This has been done before. The Pollen and Fibonacci Programs, supported by the EC brought best practices in IBSE to lagging European countries with strong results.

The global STEM talent marketplace is not defined by equal opportunity. How can we change this?

On the demand side, multinational enterprises (MNEs) drive international talent flow by recruiting skilled workers from where in the world they are best trained. But importing talent, with consideration to dual careers, family relocation and assimilation is very expensive. Often, it is cost-effective to simply move a business to where skills are abundant, intensifying the competition for talent among local employers and leaving small business and public services at a disadvantage.

On the supply side, it is survival for the fittest. Students at leading STEM high schools have their future careers secured. However, most are at the mercy of public education, which varies greatly between, districts, states, and nations. Few can afford to relocate to where education and employment opportunities are better.

But STEM education can be strengthened everywhere through IBSE and by increasing proximity to the workplace. An open window between the classroom and the workplace will help teachers and students understand employers’ needs for knowledge and skills and how these needs change with new technology and innovation. Employers gain opportunities to positively influence learning, much to their own advantage.

Someday soon, every young person will be able to graduate prepared for the global talent marketplace. This will be made possible by increasing collaboration at the international K-12 level, and between educators and employers everywhere.

Anders Hedberg, Ph.D., is an experienced pharmaceutical industry executive, who now applies his science and corporate social responsibility expertise to international STEM education. By linking business and education together for better talent preparation, he helps strengthen the global workforce pipeline. He is a member of the STEMconnector Innovation Task Force.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s January/February 2014 print edition.