Siemens Closing STEM Skills Gap Through Technical Scholars

March 1, 2017

Takeaways

Employer partnerships with community colleges are mutually beneficial for all parties. @aspenhighered @joshwyner

With every advance in automation and artificial intelligence, the American workplace changes. While changing employment demands are obvious in information technology, they are no less pronounced in energy, health care, manufacturing, and other sectors that have long relied on manual labor. Middle-skill jobs across U.S. industries every year require that workers possess deeper and broader skills in science, math, engineering, and technology.

While need for those skills continues to expand, worker readiness is not keeping up. International comparisons make clear that students in U.S. schools lack the STEM competencies of those in many other industrialized countries. In the U.S., opportunities for applied workplace learning through industry certified apprenticeships and other formal work-based structures lag behind those in countries with the strongest STEM workforces, such as Germany and Switzerland. And, gaps in educational opportunity and achievement by ethnicity and income level persist in the U.S., making it difficult to imagine closing the STEM skills gap without also closing equity gaps much more rapidly than has been done in the past.

But, as our nation considers how to close the middle-skill STEM gap, there is one major factor that separates us from others: A broad and deep system of community colleges that define themselves, in significant part, as developers of workforce talent. The U.S. is home to a unique system of roughly 1,200 two-year colleges that educate nearly 10 million students. With their low costs and broad accessibility, these institutions have become magnets for the growing number of students who are the first in their families to go to college, students hungry for a better life.

The challenge now for community colleges and employers is how to work together to develop the talents of this growing population of motivated young adults so they can access the substantial opportunities for good jobs in middle-skill STEM fields – and fuel our nation’s economy at the same time.

The challenge now for community colleges and employers is how to work together to develop the talents of this growing population of motivated young adults so they can access the substantial opportunities for good jobs in middle-skill STEM fields – and fuel our nation’s economy at the same time.

Today’s announcement of the 2017 Siemens Technical Scholars puts a face on this incredible opportunity. Fifty-one Scholars – selected by an expert panel using data and applications collected by the Aspen Institute – will each receive thousands of dollars in scholarships from the Siemens Foundation.  These remarkable young people are living evidence of what is possible when community colleges work with employers to develop talent. 

For example, Bryant Munoz, the first in his family to go to college, is studying radiological technology at El Paso Community College. Why? Because he knows that a program that places 9 out of every 10 students in a good job will enable him to achieve his education and employment goals.

At Nebraska’s Northeast Community College, another Siemens Technical Scholar, Ian Fulkers, is studying diesel technology. Learning complex technology and critical problem-solving skills, Ian has come to understand just how different his career will look from those who worked on diesel engines in the past. He is delighted that his program confers strong employment opportunities on its graduates.

Bryant and Ian and the 49 other scholars announced today demonstrate what can be done. Learn more about their stories here. Replicating their examples will be essential if skill gaps are to be closed. How can that happen? 

The nation’s best community colleges rigorously track workforce projection data and then engage with regional employers across industry sectors to ensure that their programs are delivering up-to-date, rigorous training.

Community colleges nationwide must do a better job of aligning their workforce offerings to the current and future needs of their regional economies. Most community colleges have some strong job programs but, in the aggregate, may have the wrong mix of programs to meet evolving STEM demand. The nation’s best community colleges rigorously track workforce projection data and then engage with regional employers across industry sectors to ensure that their programs are delivering up-to-date, rigorous training.

That is what happens at Indian River College in Florida, where students in the Electronics Engineering Technology program gain hands-on experience building their own machines in an electronics laboratory. Graduates of the program go on to jobs in industries ranging from robotics to computer networking, and have been hired by employers including AT&T and Northrop Grumman.

To close the STEM gap, employers too have more to do. Community college students cannot learn up-to-date skills on out-of-date equipment. FedEx donated a 727 airplane to Lake Area Technical Institute in South Dakota so that airplane mechanics could learn what they needed. At Brazosport College in Texas, BASF makes sure students have on-the-job training opportunities while in school so they can be prepared for the demands of the workplace when they graduate.

These examples tell us that employers and community colleges, working together, can close the STEM skills gap. Not only will that fuel economic growth in regions all across the U.S., it will expand opportunity in ways that can change lives. How do we know? Siemens Technical Scholars.    

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Josh Wyner is Executive Director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program.