If you’re a small business owner with a technology company, this has probably happened to you: One of your best employees is poached by a larger competitor, leaving you scrambling to find a qualified replacement who is able to pick up the load. You post the vacancy on every job board you can find. But after more than a month, the demand from your clients hasn’t decreased, and you’re struggling to keep up. Your current employees start feeling the strain, increasing your worry that others will soon follow suit and head out the door.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone—especially if you’re looking for someone such as the oh-so-coveted software developer, in high demand in nearly every industry owing to the advancement of the Internet of Things and the boom in robotics and automation. Even engineering, considered by many to be a “staple” in the American job market, is seeing shortfalls in engineers, which will keep employers from satisfying demand.
Randstad North America reports that as of 2016 there were an estimated three million more STEM jobs than qualified workers available to fill them, and the Education Commission of the States projects a 13 percent increase in that number between 2017 and 2027. Others, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics, say that most shortfalls will occur in IT rather than across all STEM fields. Given these statistics and the rapid adoption of new technology, it is clear that STEM skills will be critical in the new tech economy. If left unaddressed, the shortage of STEM workers will have long-term and extremely consequential ramifications such as stagnated economic growth. This situation leaves our country at considerable risk of losing high-paying jobs to other nations.
What do we do to fix it? The U.S. is falling behind other countries in achievement in STEM areas for a variety of reasons, including a lack of consistent exposure to the relevant subjects for young students—particularly minority students. Although both the Obama and Trump administrations emphasized the importance of STEM education, with the U.S. Department of Education investing $279 million in STEM discretionary grant funds in 2018, more can be done to make the system consistent for all of America’s K–12 students.
In 2015, according to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. placed 38th in math and 24th in science out of 71 participating nations in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), one of the largest tests to measure reading, math and science literacy. Also, the World Economic Forum reported that in 2013, 40 percent of Chinese graduates completed a degree in STEM—more than double the percentage of Americans. These numbers clearly point to a disturbing trend in our country’s ability to funnel technical labor into the workforce and remain competitive on an international scale.
So how do we reverse this alarming trend? First, we must make STEM curricula central to primary and secondary school standards and encourage students to pursue STEM careers. Second, we must rethink our approach to education. Learning should be a lifelong endeavor, not just a K–12 priority. Businesses laying the groundwork for disruptive operational change via automation, AI and other means must also prepare to retrain their workers and give them the technical skills needed for the company’s next generation of jobs.
Finally, immigration reform can ensure that those who enter the U.S. for a STEM education receive incentives to stay and contribute to our economy. Immigration reform would allow our labor market to draw on the best minds available, adding much needed dynamism and innovation to our economy. Many issues are driving the policy conversations this election cycle, but the one that could make the most substantial difference to our future has been shockingly ignored for years by presidential candidates, the media and policy makers. Implementing these reforms could be necessary to strengthen our nation’s economic standing, but no 2020 presidential candidate has made tackling the STEM skills gap a priority. A greater focus on STEM education could reverse troubling trends that are threatening to take the U.S. out of the race for tomorrow’s innovations.