While unemployment rates continue to be a persistent problem in American society, there is an alarming discrepancy between the amount of people who cannot find work and the large number of jobs that are going unfilled. But there is one commonality among all of these open jobs – they all require backgrounds in STEM fields. STEM refers to various fields of study in the categories of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Amazingly, recent studies show that for every one unemployed STEM worker there are two unfilled STEM jobs, at a time when there are 3.6 unemployed workers for every job in the United States. By 2018 the United States will have over 1.2 million unfilled jobs in STEM fields, because high schools are simply not yielding enough students who are willing to study in these fields, and universities are not producing candidates that are qualified to undertake the open jobs.
The problem begins in our high schools. There are simply not enough qualified teachers who are passionate about STEM subjects and can pass that enthusiasm on to their students. This unfortunately impacts the quality of STEM education throughout high schools, and it greatly influences high school students’ decisions regarding what to study in college. Try to think back to your own experience in high school. I personally only ever liked and respected one of my science teachers – my biology teacher. And to this day, biology is the only science that I enjoy. Similar experiences are probably the case for many liberal arts majors throughout our country. On the other hand, I loved the majority of my English teachers; they were people who were passionate about the subjects they were teaching and who made me passionate about them too. And when it came time for me to choose a major, English was my first choice and sciences were so far off my radar that I don’t think I ever even considered them.
For the students who do choose to study STEM fields, only about half make it through their respective programs without switching majors. This is largely due to the “weed-out” culture of many universities, curve grading, and the lack of faculty involvement. Professors believe that science should be hard and that only certain students have what it takes to be successful in the field. But to make classes excessively hard so that only a few students can succeed is not the way to evaluate who will actually make it in the real world. Bright minds that cannot thrive in the competitive environment fostered by grading on the curve are often deterred from the field entirely. And that competitiveness tends to undercut the very nature of many science-related jobs, because students need to learn to work together, not compete against each other.
Students graduating with STEM degrees, especially those who really excelled in their fields, are then faced with a choice: they can pass their knowledge on through the education system or they can work in the tech industry as scientists and engineers. The reality is that most choose the tech industry. That choice is understandable, given that tech jobs pay significantly more than teaching jobs, and, for so many students graduating with a large pile of undergraduate loans, that choice is really the only viable one.
The end result is that high schools are left with STEM teachers who are less than qualified, or at the very least not the most passionate about their field. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that, even though many university teachers are incredibly qualified, the weed-out culture deters students from STEM fields just as much as their sub-par high school teachers. What we need right now is a way to improve achievement in the STEM fields to ensure that our country can create (and fill) jobs so we can compete on a global level. Improving our educational system would be a great first step.