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STEM Education Holds the Key to Bridging the Skills Gap

Amatrol STEM Holds the Key InfoGraphicCutting-edge technologies, such as the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence, continue to shape current and future jobs across a broad range of industries in ways that no one fully understands yet. Unfortunately, the skills of operators and technicians aren’t keeping pace with the demands of employers.

Today, the demand for highly-skilled workers for a variety of technical and technological positions far exceeds the supply of such workers, creating what is known as the “skills gap” and leaving hundreds of thousands of positions unfilled. Experts expect the skills gap to get even worse over the course of the next decade.

To bridge the skills gap, educational institutions must produce more workers with in-demand skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Currently, however, post-secondary institutions aren’t producing enough STEM graduates.

Not only are not enough students choosing to enter STEM fields, but those that do too often switch majors or drop out altogether. Experts believe that more, better, and earlier STEM education at the primary and secondary levels could reduce the rate of STEM attrition at the post-secondary level, resulting in more STEM graduates and helping to bridge the skills gap.

Skills Gap InfoGraphicThe Skills Gap

Despite near record-low levels of unemployment, “Now Hiring” remains the sign of the times, as employers across every industry struggle to find skilled employees to fill open positions. Changes in technology have rapidly transformed the modern workplace, creating high demand for skilled workers that are currently in short supply. For example, statistics in the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey reveal nearly a half-million open manufacturing jobs in the United States.

Experts believe the skills gap will get much worse before it gets better. A study conducted by Deloitte for the Manufacturing Institute estimates that, over the next decade, almost 4.6 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled. However, because of the skills gap, as many as 2.4 million — more than half! — of those jobs could go unfilled. As employers and educational institutions scramble to find ways to bridge the skills gap, it’s clear that one solution is for educational institutions to produce more workers with skills in STEM fields.

STEM: Supply & DemandAmatrol STEM Job Growth InfoGraphic

The importance of STEM to future economic prosperity and innovation cannot be underestimated. In fact, it’s been a focus of governmental and educational efforts for many years now.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) recently released a new five-year strategic STEM plan (OSTP plan). The OSTP plan recognizes that STEM workers are in high demand and that STEM education is a key building block to produce a future workforce with the skills required by advanced technology.

In fact, experts predict that, by 2027, the number of STEM jobs will grow by 13%, with computing, engineering, and advanced manufacturing jobs leading the way. This increasing demand for STEM workers creates a challenge for educational institutions at all levels. To date, despite years of work focusing on STEM, much remains to be done.

To maintain its position as a world leader in science and technology, the United States needs to produce at least one million more STEM professionals over the next decade than it’s currently projected to produce. Today, despite high demand, American STEM bachelor’s degrees make up only 10% of the global total of such degrees, with China (22%) and India (25%) currently outpacing the U.S.

Choosing STEM

Why is the U.S. lagging behind competitors when it comes to producing STEM graduates? A look at a few key statistics will offer some insight.

First, not enough students are pursuing STEM fields. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (STEM Attrition report), approximately 28% of bachelor’s degree students and 20% of associate’s degree students choose STEM fields in college.

Those numbers could be high, though, as the STEM Attrition report noted that other studies have concluded that as few as 14% of students choose STEM. Regardless of which statistic is correct, the rates at which U.S. students choose STEM lags behind competing countries.

Amatrol STEM Attrition Rates InfoGraphic

STEM Attrition

Not only do not enough students choose STEM to begin with, those that do choose STEM too often end up leaving STEM fields. According to the STEM Attrition report, 48% of bachelor’s degree students and 69% of associate degree students eventually leave STEM fields by switching majors or dropping out of college altogether.

Those numbers should boggle the mind, especially when combined with the fact that too few students choose STEM to begin with. The result is that the U.S. currently has one of the lowest ratios of STEM to non-STEM bachelor’s degrees in the world.

Researchers have been searching for answers to the problem of STEM attrition. While many factors appear to contribute to the problem, such as the fact that STEM degrees often take longer to complete, two interrelated factors appear to be primary contributors to STEM attrition: (1) intensity of and (2) poor performance in STEM coursework in the first year. Both of these factors point to precollege academic preparation as the place to start when looking for a solution to STEM attrition.



STEM Inertia

Focusing on STEM education at the K-12 level is nothing new. The fact that STEM is a critical economic driver of opportunity is old news, and efforts have been ongoing for many years seeking to improve the performance of U.S. students in STEM subjects.

Despite various governmental and educational efforts, though, it appears that little, if any, STEM progress has been made. For example, the average U.S. mathematics score on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test showed no measurable improvement between 2003 and 2012.

Likewise, the ACT concluded in its 2017 report on STEM education in the U.S. (ACT report) that STEM interest and achievement saw virtually no change between 2012 and 2017. Even the OSTP plan acknowledged that, “[a]ccording to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2018, Americans’ basic STEM skills have modestly improved over the past two decades but continue to lag behind many other countries.”

Amatrol US STEM Ranking InfoGraphicSTEM Statistics

There’s no shortage of evidence that the STEM performance of U.S. students lags far behind where it needs to be. On the PISA test, the U.S. ranked 24th in science and 38th in mathematics out of 71 countries.

Out of 35 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations, the U.S. ranks 19th in science and 30th in mathematics. Moreover, only 26% of 12th grade students scored at or above proficient level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math assessment.

Do these statistics mean that current STEM education in the U.S. doesn’t sufficiently prepare students to succeed in STEM majors in college or ultimately in STEM careers? Other facts and figures appear to support that view.

Insufficient Preparation

According to the National Math & Science Initiative, only 36% of all high school graduates are ready to take a college-level science course. Likewise, the percentage of ACT-tested high school graduates meeting the ACT STEM Benchmark has held steady for the past several years at approximately 20%: that means only about 20% of high school graduates meet the level of readiness needed for a 50% chance of earning a B or higher in typical first-year STEM courses.

This lack of STEM preparedness can be linked directly to STEM attrition. Mathematics is a key foundation for all STEM disciplines, and one key factor identified by the STEM Attrition report as distinguishing those who leave STEM from those who persist is the level of first-year math courses taken.

Among bachelor’s degree students, 49% of STEM students took either no or only precollege level math courses. Only 21% of such students took calculus or advanced math. The numbers were even more surprising for associate degree students: 74% took no or only precollege level math courses and only 3% took calculus or advanced math.

With such a weak foundation, it’s no wonder that STEM attrition is such a problem. And it’s a problem that’s having a profound negative impact on the skills gap. ACT research shows that, “for STEM majors, STEM scores are positively related not only to succeeding in individual math and science courses but also to earning a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or higher, persisting in their STEM major, and earning a STEM-related bachelor’s degree.”

Room for Improvement

The good news is that educational professionals and governmental entities alike understand the critical importance of improving STEM education. There is plenty of room for more, better, and earlier STEM education at the K-12 level.

Experts believe improvements can help solve the skills gap. As the OSTP plan noted, “[t]omorrow’s workers are today’s learners, and the learning experiences provided to them will directly impact how many decide to pursue STEM careers as well as how ready they will be to do so.”

Intriguing makerspaces and fun robotics projects have done much to increase interest in STEM concepts. However, much more needs to be done to equip students with foundational STEM knowledge and a better understanding of STEM careers.

Amatrol Early STEM InfoGraphic

The Earlier the Better

According to the OSTP plan, “[b]asic STEM concepts are best learned at an early age—in elementary and secondary school—because they are the essential prerequisites to career technical training, to advanced college-level and graduate study, and to increasing one’s technical skills in the workplace.”

To most effectively harness the curiosity of youngsters, STEM concepts need to be introduced at a young age. Educators and parents also need to expose kids to STEM experiences in a wide variety of places and times: in school, out of school, over the summer, and throughout the community.


Demand More

At the same time, educators need to demand more of their students when it comes to STEM subjects. ACT research reveals that taking rigorous science and math classes in high school is critical to college readiness.

For example, the ACT report notes that almost 25% of students taking at least three years of math or science met the STEM benchmark. However, only 2-6% of students taking no more than two years of math or science did so.

That’s a huge difference that highlights the importance of rigorous math and science education. However, it also reveals that math and science courses must improve if only 25% of those taking at least three years of math or science can meet the ACT STEM benchmark.

Based upon these statistics, ACT issued a recommendation that states increase graduation requirements to include both three years of math and three years of science. As of 2017, though, not one state had fully followed this recommendation. In fact, only 11 states met the math recommendation and only one state met the science recommendation.



Amatrol OSTP STEM Goal InfoGraphic

Ideas Abound

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of ideas out there about how to make STEM education better. ACT, the OSTP, and other educational and governmental organizations will continue to offer suggestions for improvement. Let’s take a closer look at a few of the many approaches educational institutions could take to improve STEM:

An Interdisciplinary Approach

One of the three aspirational goals of the OSTP plan is to “[p]repare the STEM Workforce for the Future—both college-educated STEM practitioners and those working in skilled trades that do not require a four-year degree—by creating authentic learning experiences that encourage and prepare learners to pursue STEM careers.”

To fulfill that goal, the OSTP plan recommends a more integrated and interdisciplinary approach. Rather than viewing STEM as four separate, but related fields of study, experts believe it’s more beneficial to teach STEM concepts via real-world applications that blend formal and informal learning in schools, the community, and the workplace.

In fact, the OSTP plan specifically links engaging learners in work-based learning (WBL) experiences with helping to retain learners interested in STEM fields: “Strategic partnerships that promote…WBL experiences offer powerful, relevant ways to ensure that STEM learning is authentic and engaging, and that learners are prepared to succeed in the modern workforce.”

Why are such approaches recommended? Experts believe that WBL and project-based learning experiences that incorporate multiple disciplines make STEM learning more meaningful and inspiring. By focusing on complex, real-world problems and challenges, students are challenged to take initiative and use creativity to develop solutions, leading to memorable STEM learning experiences that stick with students.

Amatrol STEM Partnerships InfoGraphic

Partner with Industry

Because many future middle- and high-skill jobs will require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year STEM degree, ACT recommends that educational institutions partner with local industries to increase dual enrollment opportunities. Research shows that dual enrollment programs lead to higher graduation rates, as well as increased chances of attaining a post-secondary degree.

Working with industry partners also allows educational institutions to align education with workforce needs. According to the OSTP plan, “America will benefit from strategic partnerships that align what is taught and learned with what is needed at work and in the community. Cross-sector strategic partnerships are needed that better connect educational entities, employers, and the broader communities they serve in order to foster communication and better align workforce needs with educational preparation.”

Incorporate CTE

Many educational institutions may already have pieces in place that can help to improve and revitalize STEM education for all students. Schools with high-quality career and technical education (CTE) programs can incorporate successful practices from those programs into other STEM classes.

According to the OSTP plan:

Education systems that combine high-quality career and technical training with college preparatory curriculum are particularly effective at preparing students for both employment and post-secondary study, especially when training required to obtain industry-recognized credentials is embedded in the coursework. Such systems blend the successful practice of experiential “ah-ha” moments that characterize informal education, applied learning that characterizes…CTE, and interdisciplinary connections made through formal (typically college preparatory) coursework.

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How Amatrol Can Help

How can educational institutions put these ideas into practice? Amatrol offers a wide variety of comprehensive learning solutions that can help educators improve their STEM offerings.

Our comprehensive learning solutions include: project-based learning; highly-interactive, multimedia, eLearning curriculum; virtual simulators; and hands-on experience with real-world industrial equipment. In addition to delivering quality STEM educational content, Amatrol’s programs also provide invaluable insight into STEM career paths.

According to the OSTP plan, “[t]houghtfully executed, anytime and anywhere learning can deliver high-quality STEM education and expertise widely, blurring the boundary between formal and informal learning domains. In particular, simulation-based games, mobile platforms, virtual environments, and augmented reality tools can heighten curiosity and increase learner engagement.”

Visit Amatrol online to learn how you can leverage its technical training expertise to improve your STEM efforts. Together, we can bridge the skills gap and continue to transform the global workforce one life at a time.


About Duane Bolin

Duane Bolin is a former curriculum developer and education specialist. He is currently a Marketing Content Developer for Amatrol, Inc. Learn more about Amatrol and its technical training solutions, including eLearning, here and connect with Duane on Amatrol’s Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube pages.

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