Is there a STEM shortage or a skills gap?
Mark Atwater posted on March 13, 2014 |
It may be a matter of different training than just more of the same.

There has been a tremendous increase in STEM initiatives to increase exposure, interest and enrollment in related K-12 and college programs. The government is financially backing the effort with an FY2014 request of $3.1 billion (an increase of 6.7% over 2012). The projected need for engineers and scientists is driving this effort forward, but is it a real need?

There is conflicting evidence. There are many reports on both sides of the debate over shortages in engineering talent. That talent, for the most part, is assessed by new graduates entering the workforce, and there is a Presidential call for 10,000 additional engineering graduates per year. Education, then, is at the heart of the matter.

The need for more engineers has been tied to growing global competition and the rapid advancement of technology. Companies are voicing their concerns about finding suitable workers, even so far as to request more H-1B visas for foreign workers to fill positions.  

The other side of the coin shows that there are more than enough unemployed STEM workers to fill those positions. Wage growth doesn’t indicate an overwhelming demand either. High demand jobs are willing to pay more, but STEM wages have been relatively stagnant. The industrial demand for more STEM graduates and immigrant workers of comparable skill sets is argued to be aimed at flooding the market so as to keep wages low.

A cursory search on the STEM shortage will reveal there are vastly different opinions on the topic. People argue both sides, largely citing the same data. Whereas one article states the STEM crisis is a myth, another article refutes that, saying it is real. I encourage you to do some digging to determine which side to believe, but there is another, more robust plan for training the next generation. Give employers what they want.

I recently co-authored an article which assesses the skills-gap in engineering. The idea is that the “crisis” is a mismatch between engineering education competencies and employer demand. The specialization in engineering and the rigorous analytical capacities that engineering programs require are often not well-aligned with job duties.

This is evidenced by the roles of new hires. Graduates of Engineering, Engineering Technology and Applied Engineering programs are serving in identical capacities at companies. Relatively few engineering graduates are hired in positions which required advanced mathematics and analysis on a regular basis. In their job duties, the more “hands-on” engineering programs performed as well as “traditional” engineering graduates.

Employers are looking for individuals who have a diversity of skills. It seems a balance of hands-on, applied skills with analytical aptitude may help employers match their needs with the workforce. There is a rich and varied history in the preparation of engineers which started with more “practical” training and apprenticeship, but it has become more analytical with time. Having graduated from programs at both ends of the spectrum, I can attest that both are valuable.

Yes, companies need more technical talent. Yes, we need more engineers. Ones that are capable of analyzing problems and applying solutions in holistic fashion. Is it a crisis? That is a much murkier area. Possibly the educational structure of engineers and STEM professionals needs revised to help meet employer requirements and maintain global competitiveness.

What do think? Do you fully use your education? What is that right balance between analysis and practice? What do wish you had learned? Engineers play an important role in society, so the methods of training are important as well.


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