Closing the Skills Gap in STEM

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Written by Hannah Bergstrom

When it comes to STEM, closing the skills gap means several different things. It means closing the gender gap, closing the gap between educators and employers, closing the gap of accessibility, and closing the gap within the different STEM fields. As the workplace rapidly changes and vacancies in STEM jobs grow, it’s becoming imperative for us to work together to bridge these gaps.

At this year’s PYXERA Global Engagement Forum, closing the skills gap in STEM was a major point of discussion. At the forum, five main problems were identified as barriers in STEM: the lack of linkages between educators and employers, social stigmas, girls lacking skills and access to STEM, accessibility and inclusion, and the changing workforce.

Lack of Linkages between Educators and Employers

While the workplace is shifting and modernizing, the educational landscape has remained stagnant. STEM education has remained, for the most part, lecture-based, textbook-based, and overall framed within a traditional educational model. Yet, employers desire students with a well-rounded background—students who have hands-on experience and can prove their ability to master projects. This disconnect leaves students unprepared for STEM jobs when they leave high school, and even after obtaining a 4-year degree. The disconnect goes both ways as companies often fail to recognize the value of collaborating with universities. As a result, vacancies in STEM jobs are left unfilled because there aren’t enough qualified workers, and even after years of schooling, students do not have the qualifications that employers desire.

Why is there such a disconnect? One of the reasons is because the pace of change in the education and tech sectors are not the same. The tech industry has seen a massive revolution in the last decade, and changes in the classroom pale in comparison. In high school, students are guided on a path to attending a four-year university and earning a degree. But tech jobs, and many other STEM jobs often favor technical schools, specialized certificates, and apprenticeship programs. Such programs are where students can get the hands-on experience and project-based education that employers are looking for. 

Social Stigmas and Norms

Jobs in the trades, such as being an electrician, plumber, construction worker, technician, or carpenter are in high demand. There is a growing shortage of people entering the trades, which can be greatly attributed to how these jobs are perceived. STEM fields such as robotics, computer science, and mechanical engineering are highly esteemed and sought after, and many people view these as lucrative career opportunities. However, people fail to realize the benefits of having a career in the trades—which often pay well with less expensive and shorter schooling.

There are many stigmas that create barriers for people to enter a career in the trades. One of these stigmas is that jobs in the trades are for older workers—the average age for trade workers is about 44 years old, and younger people are entering these jobs at a very low rate. There is also the false perception that there is limited upward mobility in these careers. High school and university students alike are unaware of the economic opportunities a career in the trades could bring due to the push for fields that are seen as more prestigious.

Girls Lacking Skills and Access to STEM

It’s no news that there is a major gender gap in the STEM fields. This is due to both internal and external barriers for girls starting at a young age. And while many girls are capable and interested in STEM, systemic issues discourage them from pursuing a career. In the United States, even though women make up half of the college-educated workforce, they only make up 29% of the engineering and science workforce.

According to the Guardian, “biological explanations tend to rely on the fact that boys are better at spatial tasks while girls are better at verbal recall tasks. However, these differences are very small and their link to STEM ability is tenuous.” Accordingly, the gender gap in STEM can be attributed to a variety of systemic cultural reasons.

Amongst the web of barriers that prevent girls from pursuing STEM opportunities is the lack of role models and support systems for girls interested in STEM. Additionally, many products and programs are designed by men, for men, leaving little opportunity for girls to flourish to their full extent in the field.

Accessibility and Inclusion

The lack of accessibility in STEM puts some students even further behind. Many schools lack the necessary facilities for proper access to STEM, such as labs and modern computer equipment. In the United States there is a major lack of funding in the education system, so even teachers that are inspired and passionate to prepare students for the workforce are ill-equipped to do so. There are many teachers that aren’t prepared to teach students, or don’t have the resources to provide students with the hand-on projects that will qualify them for employment in STEM fields.

The Changing Workforce

Often, we becoming fixated on the future of the workforce. However, changes in the workforce have already happened—and continue to happen. Technical skills are becoming a necessity and jobs are changing and being replaced. The future of the workforce is actually the now. According to PYXERA, “90% of jobs that existed in the 20th century do not exist today and 50% of the jobs today are at risk of being replaced by or significantly impacted due to technology.” The reality we are facing is that the market is changing faster than there are skilled workers, and underemployment for college graduates is reaching an all-time high. This frustrating paradox points to the growing need take on the challenges in STEM today.

Programs for girls

One solution to help close the gender gap in STEM is implementing programs for girls. One example of a successful program was founded by Carolyne Ekyarisiima in Tanzania called Apps and Girls, which provides coding classes, entrepreneurship skills, and mentorship to girls through boot camps, school events, clubs, internship opportunities, and more. Their goal is to “give girls of Africa the skills, tools, self-esteem and competitive edge to become effective leaders and drivers in their communities while building sustainable information technology based social enterprises and companies solving community challenges in Africa.”

Apps and Girls has reached thousands of African girls, some of whom have gone onto create startups and win international awards. This program is an example of how mentorship can inspire girls to pursue opportunities in STEM and reach their highest potential. To overcome stigmas, stereotypes, and external barriers, girls need to have role models and mentors to show them that there is a place for them in STEM. 

Collaboration between Industry and the Education Sector  

It’s clear that effective collaboration between the industry and education sector is necessary. Collaboration could come in the form of apprenticeship and internship programs, jobs fairs and outreach to schools, or a better system for students to signify their credentials to employers.

One solution is creating a system where badges can be earned to show employers that one is capable of a particular skill. This would be a part of existing courses in community colleges or universities—as the students completes the course, they earn badges for specific skills they’ve learned. This can prove to employers that students have the necessary credentials for the job. There is an existing platform called Badgr that aspires to do just that and the Learning Economy is utilizing blockchain technology to solve for this.

Community Resources

Another proposed solution was the creation of a community-sourced map of resources such as job opportunities, coding classes, and access to computers and Wi-Fi. This “ecosystem” map would be community-specific and could guide students, unemployed persons, and workers to local resources. The map could be online or in print for people without access to internet.

We are currently facing many challenges in the world of STEM that, if solved, could positively impact the economy, the overall job market, and availability of skilled workers. We are no longer discussing the future of the workforce—we are facing these challenges today as the skills gap is creating significant problems in the workforce as we know it. The good news is that these problems are solvable. We’ve seen examples of success in small projects that could be implemented on a larger scale. As educators and industry leaders, private and public sectors, and government leaders work together, we can create a world where the skills gap in STEM does not exist.