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The Root of Real Jobs: Filling the STEM Talent Gap

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As any seasoned executive recruiter or human resources professional will attest, being successful at finding and placing candidates is about making the match, nailing the elusive fit between job seeker and job, skill set and need. Fit can be a euphemism for all sorts of intangibles like organizational culture, team chemistry or even work style. Always, though, the tangible skills are critical.

But finding talent to fill science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs these days is rarely about anything as subtle as fit. It's a much more basic and troubling challenge. The talent -- and more critically, the skills -- are just not there to be had. We have little to no supply to meet the ever-growing demand. Think of it, in this economy with record unemployment rates, U.S. businesses are unable to fill jobs because of basic skills gaps in the workforce. In industries as varied as consumer goods, oil and gas, utilities, food and beverage, computing and manufacturing, even welding, we simply don't have the qualified candidates to hire. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be 1.2 million job openings for computer science graduates by 2018, but current U.S. graduation rates will provide qualified workers for only one-third of those positions. Jobs -- millions of them -- are going unfilled!

Our nation's competitiveness and future depend on STEM jobs. But how did we -- the world's innovation engine -- get here, and more importantly how do we get out? The answer to both those questions certainly lies in our education and professional development systems and our ability to inspire students and employees to see themselves as engineers, scientists and innovators. Many point to education as a root cause, but there's another facet to this issue and it exists outside the sometimes insular world of pedagogy. The real heart of the challenge lies with industry -- or, more precisely, with the mismatch between what industry needs (qualified workers) with what education is supplying. It's a classic supply and demand proposition that for some reason has gone completely awry.

Business, government and even nonprofit organizations project their needs, or the demand side of this particularly complex equation, with millions of jobs at stake. And yet, the supply to meet demand is not being met. The gap in supply must be filled or our nation simply can't compete. Microsoft, for example, is estimating that it currently has more than 6,000 open jobs in the U.S., an increase of 15 percent over the last year. Not only do the tech companies have thousands of vacant jobs but so does every major industry. Even as layoffs hit traditional defense and aerospace jobs, the same sectors are desperate to fill newly emerging cyber jobs. Once again, jobs cannot be filled because the skills are simply not there.

Estimates are that we are spending approximately $1 trillion a year on STEM education with few real results. We need programs that are proven to work, that are scalable and that leverage the best of what we know. Success requires partnerships and collaboration -- from the grassroots community, to state-based initiatives and on up the governmental "food chain," but also with private-public partnerships as we have never witnessed before. Examples of excellent, effective programs exist and we should look to business leaders to put their skills to use in identifying and supporting those efforts and initiatives that have proven track records.

We need recruiters and counselors to start with demand from the business community and push for skills to get the pipeline to jobs. We need role models: age and gender and ethnically appropriate, with which today's students can identify. We need more information and guidance for our teachers and counselors and parents to be able to help students prepare for the rigorous and oftentimes challenging coursework that will lie ahead. And most of all we need business leaders, supported by their internal human resources leadership, to articulate their needs and help guide the way. Some organizations are confronting a dearth of highly skilled talent -- those with graduate degrees; still others are confronting a shortage of technical expertise -- workers with technical training and certifications.

STEM jobs aren't for everyone, but with 70 percent of the 8 million STEM-related jobs the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates will be created in the next 10 years requiring basic technological literacy, they are for more of us than the nerdy and socially awkward pop culture stereotype would lead us to believe. STEM workers command higher wages, earning 26 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts, and the millions of jobs that STEM fields are projected to create over the next decades will not fill themselves.

STEM industries are found everywhere, spanning everything from biotech to humanitarian relief to robotics, gaming and sports and even the arts and culture. What other career path can claim the variety and flexibility of STEM? Our nation is not only poised to go over a "fiscal cliff," we're just about in freefall over a talent cliff to meet the growing need of STEM jobs. We need STEM leaders in industry to lead with the passion they bring to their businesses to help fill the talent gap!