21st Century Learning

5 Critical Gaps in STEM Skills

The STEM "talent gap" is a broad term that really covers "five critical gaps," according to a new report. "State of STEM" was produced by STEMconnector, a professional services firm that works to increase the number of "STEM-ready workers." Author Erin White and her team interviewed 114 people from academia, business, nonprofits, foundations and other organizations, as well as students in STEM college programs, to develop a STEM "typology" of talent gaps and come up with recommendations for filling the gaps.

The five gaps for science, technology, engineering and math identified in the report encompass:

A fundamental skills gap, or what young people need for success "as lifelong workers and active citizens." These include basic mathematics, critical thinking, complex and creative problem-solving and the ability to adapt. "In the era of Google, we don't need people who can memorize, we need people who can think," said an education manager for the International Space Station quoted in the report.

The belief gap, including the "aptitude, personal traits and level of achievement" required to excel in STEM fields. This gap also covers the impression students have about which industries offer STEM jobs and whether or not they believe they belong in STEM. As an industry rep stated, "Unfortunately, many times students in the 'academic middle' — 'low B' and 'C' and even 'D' students — are not encouraged to consider a STEM career. They are often discouraged and overlooked by teachers, STEM programs, and even potential employers. These students are the very students that provide a great opportunity for impacting the STEM talent gap."

The postsecondary education gap, covering both the number of graduates who hold a traditional STEM degree and also the type of skills needed for success, no matter what the degree. The report pointed out that frequently credentials are "misaligned with employer needs," contributing to a lack of job candidates possessing the appropriate credentials.

The geographic gap, referring to the locations where the jobs are and where the qualified workers live. "Jobs may be down the street but far out of reach of locals," the report asserted, exposing the connections between "poverty and place" and the "lack of opportunity in certain neighborhoods and communities."

The demographic gap, referring specifically to the "well-documented disproportionate participation" in STEM of people of color, women and those from low-income backgrounds. This gap is expected to persist, particularly as the demographics of the United States continues changing. While access to resources plays a big role in maintaining this gap, White wrote, so does the "existence of bias and discrimination." As a deputy director from the Intel Foundation explained, "Diversity solutions in STEM fall short because we assume that merely inviting groups from underserved communities to have a seat at the table will lead them to participate — but what if they don't have a way to get to the table?"

To begin filling some of the existing STEM gaps, the report suggested, students need to be exposed to STEM "routinely," both in and out of school. For example, after-school organizations can embed STEM activities into their programs; local businesses can offer paid internships and apprenticeships; and mentors can work with students more directly to help them with decision-making and provide support. Also, teachers need to have more professional learning that includes access to industry; and vice versa, business leaders need to get into the classroom more often.

The "State of STEM" is available with registration on the STEMconnector site.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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