Creating Pathways to Higher Education and Career Service Part I: The Looming U.S. Skills Shortage

by DeVan Hankerson on October 15, 2014

This month, MMTC Research Director DeVan Hankerson spoke at the National Action Network on “Creating Pathways to Higher Education and Career Service.” With other panelists, DeVan discussed inequality in broadband access in schools and how technology is changing career options, education, and skills preparation for students. We present her adapted remarks in a two-part series highlighting the skills shortage in the U.S. and the dearth of minority students and employees in STEM fields.

STEM EducationI’ll start my remarks with quote from a report jointly published in 2013 by the Computer Research Association and the National Science Foundation: “In the next decade, higher education, military and workplace training and professional development must all transform to exploit the new opportunities of a new era, leveraging emerging technology-based models….”

I am going to frame my remarks around the 21st century economy and what it takes to build a pathway toward career service in specific high tech fields. To begin with, I want to define what STEM is.

STEM fields can include a wide range of disciplines. Some of the included areas are mathematics; physical sciences; biological/life sciences; computer and information sciences; engineering and engineering technologies; and science technologies.

Non-STEM fields, by definition, include all fields that are not STEM fields, such as the social/behavioral sciences; humanities; business; education; and health sciences.

The digital economy has changed things, and we are not going to revert to a previous state of workforce preparedness

Technology advances are running so far ahead that large numbers of people may not be able to keep up, and the future will bring even more serious economic disruptions.

A 2013 study by the McKinsey Global Institute touches on the current rate of “societal” improvement as driven by technological innovation. The study highlights the 230 million “knowledge workers” in the U.S.; that is, workers whose main capital is knowledge, i.e., what they know. Typical examples may include software engineers, academics, engineers, scientists, and doctors, so named because they “think for a living.” Knowledge work differs from other forms of work in that its primary task is non-routine problem solving that requires a combination of convergent, divergent, and creative thinking.

The report also points out that there will be between two and three billion more people with access to the Internet by the year 2025. This surge in access is important because the impact of technology on the economy is disruptive, and it is likely that it will continue to be disruptive for quite some time. In every respect, the status quo in communities as it relates to training and in education in the labor sector is being upended.

From the standpoint of career selection and higher education, consider the top 12 most disruptive technologies, as reported by McKinsey:

  1. Mobile Internet
  2. The Automation of knowledge work (intelligent software systems)
  3. The Internet of Things
  4. Cloud Technology
  5. Advanced Robotics
  6. Autonomous and near autonomous vehicles
  7. Next generation genomics
  8. Energy storage (devices or systems that store energy for later use)
  9. 3D Printing
  10. Advanced material production (materials designed to have superior characteristics e.g. strength, weight, conductivity etc. or functionality)
  11. Advanced oil and gas (exploration and recovery techniques that improve the cost efficiency of natural resource extraction)
  12. Renewable energy

Cybersecurity is a parallel area that complements every single one of the 12 disruptive technologies. These advances power their own ecosystems, which require workers with highly specialized technical skills and competencies.

STEM education and the cybersecurity career field

Just yesterday, I attended the 2014 Cybersecurity Summit hosted by The Washington Post. At the Summit, corporate security experts discussed the Home Depot data breach where 56 Million users had their credit card and other information exposed. This is just one of the latest in a number of other high profile data breaches.

These kinds of breaches are getting more costly, both financially and in terms of consumer impact. Unfortunately, the problem is worsening because public, private, and government entities have trouble finding skilled workers to help defend against cyber attacks.

This is a people problem, and it presents a strong opportunity area from the perspective of preparing students for careers in the 21st century.

The nature of work has changed, and millions of people now require new skills and expertise. Students and our educational institutions therefore require a new focus that targets 21st century skills.

There is a skills shortage in America

New technologies can make certain forms of human labor unnecessary or economically uncompetitive and create a demand for new skills. This has been a repeated phenomenon since the Industrial Revolution, and this is where we are now. The extent to which today’s emerging technologies could affect the nature of work is particularly striking.

Although demand is increasing throughout the U.S. economy and around the world for “knowledge technologists” with a wide range of education, training, and skills, there is a talent mismatch between workers’ qualifications and the specific skill sets employers want. Technology is accelerating changes in the way work is done, and in doing so, it contributes to the talent mismatch.

But we also have something of a technology paradox, particularly among young minorities. There is this great book by Edward E. Gordon, called Winning the Global Talent Showdown, that goes into it in more detail. In it, Gordon describes that overall, younger workers are “tech junkies,” but they lack the talent qualifications or even interest in careers centered on designing, making, repairing, or applying and managing many 21st-century technologies.

The National Academies warn against the issue of preparedness, stating, “The danger exists that Americans may not know enough about science, technology, or mathematics to contribute significantly to, or fully benefit from, the knowledge-based economy that is already taking shape around us.”

Career and technical education is the aim

Business leaders, educators, and policymakers will need to find ways to realize the benefits of today’s technologies while creating new, innovative ways of working and providing new skills to today’s students at all levels of education.

Incorporating career and technical training throughout the entire education system will help students and educators implement a holistic vision for transforming learning experiences and this is what will change outcomes and aspirations for students.

Part II of DeVan’s remarks focuses on the disparity between minority adoption of new technology and their mastery of using it to develop 21st century skills to succeed in STEM fields.

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