How to Strengthen the STEM Workforce

March 7, 2016

Takeaways

New report says many college #STEM grads lack employability #skills

The breadth and the depth of student experiences in STEM courses, labs, and applied learning activities ensures that they move into their careers with the skills necessary to meet a region’s STEM workforce needs. The most effective way to attain this outcome is for colleges and universities to work in collaboration with local businesses, industries, and third-party intermediaries such as chambers of commerce.

These are the major messages of a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Promising Practices for Strengthening the Regional STEM Workforce Development Ecosystem. An Academies committee held five regional workshops across the nation.

Each workshop convened leaders and employers from the business community; administrators and faculty from 2-year and 4-year colleges and universities; regional economic development experts; and representatives from local chambers of commerce. 

Many college and university students are graduating with STEM degrees, but many lack the right combination of technical and employability skills needed to thrive in the workplace.

Three overarching findings emerged:

  • Many college and university students are graduating with STEM degrees, but many lack the right combination of technical and employability skills needed to thrive in the workplace. This situation is particularly acute with minority students and female students.
  • Employers are increasingly focused on the skills and abilities new hires possess, rather than on the degrees that graduates have earned. While there is a critical need for STEM graduates who will work as professional, research, and development scientists and engineers (so-called STEM narrow skills), there is also a growing need for individuals that have a facility with STEM concepts, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree (so-called STEM broad skills). There is also a growing need for students with problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork, and communications skills.
  • A robust STEM workforce development ecosystem requires proactive actions by university leaders, local employers, and intermediary organizations to build and sustain alliances that benefit students and regional economic development.

The report recommends concrete steps that various stakeholders can take to initiate and expand university-employer partnerships.

For example:

  • College and University Provosts and Deans should encourage the creation of STEM advisory boards on campus—housed in various academic departments—to engage with the local employer community about ways to adapt the curriculum and labs to align with regional workforce needs.
  • Businesses should prioritize the development of work-based learning opportunities for students and faculty—including paid internships, apprenticeships, and other experiences that provide hands-on, experiential learning at the worksite. They should also encourage their employees to serve as mentors to local college and university students.
  • Third-Party Intermediaries (e.g., chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, and industry consortia) should facilitate the creation of effective workforce development partnerships among local employers and universities by bridging some of the cultural and communication barriers that can present obstacles to partnerships, helping employers and universities understand a region’s competitive advantages by addressing data needs, and bringing promising partnership activities to scale.

Many more concrete steps for all stakeholder groups are laid out in detail in the report.

Copies of the report are available from the National Academies Press; call (800) 624-6242 or (202) 334-3313 or visit the NAP website at www.nap.edu

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Rudin is Director, Board on Higher Education and Workforce, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine