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Plugging the Holes in the STEM Pipeline

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For those of you interested in plentiful and highly paid jobs for yourself or your children, here are a few quick numbers for your consideration:

• According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were four million open jobs in the American economy on the last day of November 2013.

• More than 75 percent of the top 25 jobs for 2014 identified by U.S. News and World Report were "STEM" (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields.

• The National Science Foundation reports that from 1950 to 2009, the number of science and engineering workers grew from 182,000 to 5.4 million. Half earned $73,290 or more in 2010, more than double the national median income of $33,840.

• According to a survey of Fortune 1000 companies, 89 percent report "fierce" competition to fill jobs requiring four-year degrees in STEM-related fields.

At ACT, we know where to find thousands of young people who could fill this wide open and well-paid pipeline. How do we know? Because they told us.

ACT tested 1.8 million members of America's high school class of 2013. As noted in our just-released STEM report, more than 150,000 of these students provided responses to questions in our "Interest Inventory" suggesting they have an inherent interest in STEM, but do not have plans to major in a STEM field in college or pursue a STEM career.

There is clearly untapped potential -- potential that could fuel American productivity for decades, and that could generate jobs to support these students and their families for the next 40 or 50 years.

How do we encourage students to bridge our national skills gap?

• Awareness: Involve every child and inform every adult. We found that more females than males expressed an interest in STEM. Still, according to BEST, 75 percent of our scientists, engineers, mathematicians and technologists are male. We also saw that 45 percent of African American and 48 percent of Hispanic students had an interest in STEM majors or occupations, yet 80 percent of our scientists, engineers, mathematicians and technologists are white. As adults, we need to make sure all children, including girls and today's "majority minority" toddlers, are aware of their STEM-related opportunities.

• Engagement: Start early and stick with it. The American Institutes for Research recommends STEM instruction that is "authentic, engaging, relevant and integrated" and finds "early exposure to math and science can help keep students on track through middle and high school."

• Achievement: Students must be aware, engaged and able. In our STEM report, while we saw high interest in STEM, we also saw too few students graduating from high school ready for college and career success, especially in math and science. Awareness and engagement are essential, but so is achievement.

An alignment of awareness, engagement and achievement pays dividends not only on the job, but also in postsecondary education. ACT's recent College Choice report found a surprising number of students who plan to pursue college majors and careers that don't match their interests. These mismatches can be expensive, in both time and money. Fortunately, we also found that students whose majors are aligned with their interests are more likely to stick with their majors, stay in school, and graduate from college in a timely manner.

As a nation, we need to convince more of the 150,000 high school graduates with STEM interests to follow the STEM dream. We need to encourage younger children to develop an interest in STEM-related occupations, and we need to help both age groups to get started on careers that could make a difference in their lives and to our country as a whole.

The students are there. They've told us who they are. We know where to find them. And we know that STEM-ready students will make a crucial difference in ensuring American global competitiveness for generations to come.

It's time to plug the holes in the STEM pipeline.

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Jon Whitmore is CEO of ACT, a global nonprofit organization whose mission is "Helping people achieve education and workplace success."