September/October 2013
Workforce Development

Preparing for the global economy starts in schools: so let's start

By Vince Bertram, Ph.D.

The discussion about the U.S. workforce development skills gap is at a crescendo, as well it should be. It is a supply-and-demand, skills-gap crisis with no less at stake than our nation's future.

The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that while the number of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs will grow 17 percent by 2018 (nearly 7 percent higher growth than for non-STEM fields), there will not be enough qualified U.S. high school and college graduates to fill them. In fact, during the recent U.S. News Summit in Austin, Texas, it was reported that an estimated 1.2 million STEM jobs will go unfilled in the U.S. by 2018.

As for the next wave of graduates who would seemingly fill the void: the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development 2011 rankings show U.S. students as 17th in science achievement and 25th in math ability out of 65 countries.

In other words, if our nation's schools are the pipelines for the future U.S. workforce, there simply are not enough students in the current pipeline who will have both the talent and the interest to fill the available jobs. Clearly, this is a vital issue for the automation industry.

At the same time, there is every reason to be optimistic about solving the U.S. STEM challenge. After all, as a nation, we have a proven track record of resilience and focus. But success will not happen without a clear path carefully plotted by educators, administrators, policy makers, corporations, nonprofits, government, and anyone who has even a small stake in the U.S.' future.

Which is to say, everyone.

Moreover, students must start on that path in elementary school, because children can become disenchanted with science and math as early as second and third grade.

In her article "Closing the manufacturing skills gap" (InTech, July/August 2012), Pam Hurt, Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) industry manager for workforce development and co-chair of the Automation Week 2013 student program, says the SME Education Foundation "encourages youth to get involved in manufacturing technologies through STEM-related activities in the K-12 levels." We should all work toward that objective. Students who understand how their education relates to their life, career options, and future opportunities are more excited and engaged, and students who experience hands-on learning and real-life problem solving taught by involved, enthusiastic teachers can foster not only talent for, but lifelong interest in STEM.

Most important, students who understand and can execute critical-thinking, problem-solving, and collaborative skills are better prepared to play a proactive role in the global economy.

So, if we know these things, how can we put this knowledge into action and slam shut the U.S. skills gap?

Start implementing interesting, relevant, and rigorous STEM curricula in schools. Start providing teachers and school systems access to training-and ongoing professional development opportunities-that catalyze their passion and talent for teaching STEM subjects and bringing lessons to life. Start offering STEM learning to students in elementary schools and increasing their knowledge and excitement through high school. Start connecting and weaving businesses, government entities, nonprofits, and school systems into involved networks that are committed to supporting STEM education. Start inviting students into real-world workplace STEM environments so they can see and touch both the exciting opportunities available and what it will take to achieve them.

These are all things Project Lead The Way (PLTW) is doing. As a provider of rigorous, hands-on STEM curricula for middle and high schools, we are thrilled to be included in more than 5,000 schools in all 50 states, serving more than 600,000 students annually.

We see every day the enormous results of dedicated teachers engaging students in learning that will catalyze a lifelong interest in science, technology, engineering, and math. There is nothing more exciting than when students "get it"-and they understand the relevancy of what they have learned and how it translates to their future. We know our programs work, and we are excited to improve our curricula and expand our presence-including a new elementary school program we are piloting this year in 43 schools to reach even younger students who edge ever closer to that critical cusp of loving or loathing STEM subjects.

Our important work shows what can happen when public and private entities pool human and financial resources to solve a mutual concern. That is why we work closely with partners and affiliates, such as the SME Education Foundation, the Automation Federation, and myriad educators, school systems, government entities, nonprofit organizations, and corporations. It would be incredible for our nation if PLTW were the solution to the U.S. skills-gap crisis. It is heartening to at least know we are a key component of the solution. As more leaders, communities, and companies continue to collaborate and think critically about this issue, we should be confident that we will solve the problem and achieve a talented workforce that is prepared for the global economy and our nation's future.


Vince Bertram, Ph.D. is the president and CEO of Project Lead the Way and is a national leader in the area of education and the importance of critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration as cornerstones to preparing students for the global economy. He is a member of the Automation Federation board of directors.