Addressing the STEM Workforce Shortage


Two students sitting at a table facing a laptop
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As the world emerges from a nearly complete business shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, help wanted signs seem to be everywhere. Business leaders are forced to limit production and services because they simply cannot find an adequate labor supply. But the labor shortage problem is projected to be more serious and more enduring in industries that rely on a technologically skilled workforce. In fact, the US is facing a significant need to develop adequate talent in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields to ensure economic strength, security, global competitiveness, and environmental health. There are currently more than 16 million skilled technical jobs requiring an associate degree or similar level qualification, and the number of jobs requiring substantial STEM expertise has grown nearly 34% over the past decade.

In addition to projected STEM labor shortages, there are significant racial and gender disparities in the technical workforce. African Americans comprise 11% of the US workforce but only 7% of all STEM workers. Hispanics are 17% of the workforce but only 7% of all STEM workers.  Women are underrepresented in several STEM occupations, particularly in computer jobs and engineering.  The racial and gender inequalities have significant income implications. Even among workers with similar education, STEM workers earn significantly more. At a time when we need to address STEM labor shortages, we cannot afford to leave segments of our population behind.   

The National Science Foundation (NSF) supports a strategy to address these issues through the newly funded Community College Presidents’ Initiative in STEM Education. Community colleges, serving the most diverse student body in higher education, are fertile ground for effective diversification of the STEM workforce. 51% of community college students taking college credit classes are students of color.  

NSF’s Advanced Technology Education (ATE) program has a track record of supporting community colleges, providing $1.11 billion in support over 25 years. ATE projects and centers have included advanced manufacturing technologies, agricultural and environmental technologies, bio and chemical technologies, engineering technologies, micro and nanotechnologies, and information and cybersecurity technologies.  While community colleges’ attention to STEM education has increased over the years, effective use of available government support is still inadequate to address the workforce shortage. Only 22% of eligible public community colleges are taking advantage of the NSF ATE funding opportunity, a percentage that needs to increase significantly.

Community colleges need partnerships with business and industry to apply for these funds and to implement successful ATE programs. Representatives from business and industry concerned about the future workforce should contact their local community colleges to begin discussions about developing needed education and training programs.  

A good example of a partnership can be found in Ohio where Honda North America led the development of a benchmark experiential learning program with Columbus State Community College. The heart of this modern manufacturing work-study model is a five-semester program that combines college curriculum with part-time paid employment at a partner company. The students begin two full-time, work-related academic semesters at Columbus State. Near the end of the second semester, students are interviewed by Honda and other partner companies to assign them to appropriate jobs. Students are hired by one of the companies in a work-study capacity in their third semester. Over the course of the next year, students reduce class time and begin working at the facility three days per week as paid part-time employees. At the end of the five semesters, students are awarded an electro-mechanical associate degree which, along with their paid work experience and enhanced technical skills, lead to potential full-time job offers.

Learn more about the U.S. Chamber Foundation’s initiatives around workforce development here.