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How the American School System Can Train Kids for High-Tech Jobs

Unemployment is high, but there are tons of open jobs in engineering and science. Here's how America's school system can fill the gap.

In May of 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an estimated 2.6 million jobs were unfilled. In the heart of the worst American recession in decades, with unemployment rates hovering at nine percent, there were over two million unfilled jobs. Why the contradiction? Many of these unfilled positions were in industries such as healthcare, aerospace, advanced precision manufacturing, scientific laboratory occupations, and computer-related design jobs which require knowledge of the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

America can’t produce enough workers in the very fields of innovation that have made us the world economic leader. This is a startling reality, as we have convinced ourselves that the loss of manufacturing jobs to Asia and Latin America is tolerable because we are generating higher paying design, innovation, and management jobs at home. And now, we can’t come close to filling these jobs.

This problem is deeply rooted in the failure of the American public education system. Of the high school graduates who took the ACT test in 2005, for example, only 41 percent achieved the College Readiness Benchmark in mathematics and 26 percent achieved that benchmark in science. College readiness in these fields is all but a prerequisite to pursuing a STEM job. Despite the huge market need, and the promise of much higher paying careers, only 17 percent of college students pursue STEM majors. To compound the problem, traditional sources of labor in STEM fields, foreign nationals, are also drying up as the promise of lucrative careers in India and China are keeping talent abroad.

President Obama has recognized this core challenge to America’s economic competitiveness and has made improving STEM education a centerpiece of his agenda. He outlined a commitment to recruit and train 100,000 new STEM teachers in the United States by 2020. A coalition of foundations and organizations, including my own, DSST Public Schools, has committed to help accomplish this goal by recruiting and training 10,000 new teachers in the next two years.

However, this effort is not enough. We need to do much more to solve this national crisis. STEM education is about more than the promise of improved test scores; it's about preparing the most under-served students in our country for the highest paying, highest needs jobs. In return, we can provide a whole new source of talent to fill America’s largest human capital needs. We can simultaneously elevate families out of poverty and fill our country’s economic needs. The average annual wage for all STEM occupations was $77,880 in May 2009, and only 4 of the 97 STEM occupations had mean annual wages below the U.S. average of $43,460. In order to provide these opportunities to all students, educators should consider the following:

Nationwide STEM education efforts must focus on rigor before relevance. There is a flawed notion that if only we can get kids excited about STEM subjects, we will increase the pipeline to STEM careers. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year exposing students to STEM career opportunities to get students excited. But, the real problem is rigor. We send these students with an interest in STEM to middle and high schools with curriculum and graduation expectations well short of college expectations. In fact, these students have no chance of actually studying STEM in college because they are often stuck in remedial college coursework. Rigor is hard to achieve, but we have to tackle this problem to truly transform STEM education in this country. I suggest a pre-calculus math requirement for all students—thereby ensuring all American students are eligible and ready to study STEM in college, if they so choose.

Focus STEM efforts on traditionally under-served low-income communities. The irony of science education in America is that we have relegated the study of science to America’s wealthy and gifted and talented students. The vast majority of science-focused schools in this country are gifted and talented magnet programs. Our country has long believed in science and innovation, yet our education system has given access to study science to only a select few. Why not give every child the opportunity to study STEM in open-enrollment schools and bring the American ideal of equal opportunity for all into science education?

Professionalize teaching so that we can attract a new generation of science and math teachers. We need to provide clear career paths and competitive compensation for teachers that reward performance, student success, and innovation. Only then will we attract the necessary teaching talent to create a robust, sustainable STEM education movement.

Some people view this focus on STEM education as just another passing trend. Instead, it needs to be the cornerstone of a new 21st century American economic resurgence. America’s long-term economic future is at stake.

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