Beyond College and Career Ready: Students, Career Interests and Jobs

02/01/2013 06:06 pm ET | Updated Apr 03, 2013

As our nation explores ways to address a critical shortfall in our science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce, we need look no further than our own high schools. In 2012, nearly 28 percent of high school freshmen, around one million students, expressed an interest in pursuing a STEM career. Unfortunately, more than half of those students (57 percent) will lose that interest by the time they reach their final year of high school. How then do we propel one million students through the STEM pipeline and into the over eight million STEM jobs that will be available by 2018? States like Iowa, whose Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds co-chairs Iowa's STEM Advisory Council, seem to get it. But we need more leadership and support from decision-makers at all levels.

As we tackle such issues as college and career readiness, matching student interests and workforce needs seems self-evident, yet we are unable to meet demand for STEM talent. Currently, 600,000 manufacturing jobs are going unfilled, leaving a cornerstone of the American economy in serious jeopardy. Interestingly enough, the most popular major or career choice for high school students is mechanical engineering, with 20.4 percent of high school students interested in the field. By identifying this match, the education community, private sector, and government can focus resources and energy to ensure the transfer of this untapped potential into jobs.

It is important for leaders in education, government, and business to also understand the complete demographic profile of students interested in STEM. Since the graduating class of 2004, overall interest in STEM majors and careers among high school seniors has increased by over 20 percent, a trend that is expected to continue. With an increase in overall STEM interest there are also some troubling gaps, particularly when it comes to young women and under-represented minorities. Nationally, about 14.5 percent of female students express STEM interest as compared to 39.6 percent for their male counterparts. Addressing the gender gap in STEM must continue to be a priority for our nation's leaders. Improving the representation of minorities in STEM goes hand-in-hand with working to solve the gender gap and is a long-established priority within the STEM community.

In order to retain the students currently interested in STEM we must motivate and mentor them, enabling them to see the excitement and financial security a career in STEM will offer. Once they are empowered with this knowledge they can plan by taking the appropriate coursework and gaining the critical skill sets they will need to be successful in higher education and beyond. By 2018, the bulk of STEM jobs will be in computing (71 percent) followed by engineering (16 percent), physical sciences (7 percent), life sciences (4 percent), and mathematics (2 percent). Other potential "match-ups" can be found in the substantial student interest in computer information/science (8.1 percent) and computer engineering (5.9 percent) in relation to the huge demand for computing jobs by 2018. Policymakers should realize these relationships between future supply and demand and act upon them.

Realizing that the bulk of STEM jobs will be in computing is important, but knowing the "hot-fields" is an equally compelling piece of information. Between 2011 and 2015, and estimated 1.7 million jobs will be created in cloud computing in North America alone, opening a huge job market for students planning a career in the field. The explosion of mobile technology has fostered a new "app economy" that has created an estimated 311,000 new jobs, with more growth projected in future years. These are among the new fields we should be motivating and preparing our bright-minded and innovative young students to pursue. We must drive STEM pipeline success by capturing and ensuring matches of students to millions of careers -- engaging companies for jobs and students excited about skills for their STEM careers.