The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade held a November 15 hearing examining global competitiveness as it relates to the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce. The subcommittee has held past hearing on manufacturing jobs, during which companies described a lack of available workers who are educated in STEM fields. Policy makers have heard from companies concerned about meeting their future STEM workforce needs and subcommittee Members were interested in learning which manufacturing industries are most affected by the shortage of skilled workers, whether redesigning the education and workforce model could be necessary, and how this shortage relates to U.S. economic growth.
Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) opened the hearing noting that “according to the Manufacturing Institute, STEM jobs are projected to grow by 17 percent between 2008 and 2018. Fifty-six percent of manufacturing executives already believe that the skilled workforce shortage we are experiencing will increase over the next three to five years, culminating in a projected shortage of as many as 700,000 unfilled skilled jobs by 2020. The good news is that this problem hasn’t gone completely unnoticed. As many as 252 STEM education activities or programs are currently being run by several different federal agencies. Yet we are still facing a reality where technology companies like Microsoft cannot find trained computer technicians.”
Subcommittee Ranking Member Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) emphasized the bi-partisan interest in STEM education and the Obama Administration’s attention to STEM workforce issues. She was interested to learn about potential ways to replicate successful STEM programs in schools and small businesses.
Five witnesses testified. Jennifer McNelly, President of the Manufacturing Institute described some of the challenges faced by the manufacturing industry including the absence of a national trade policy and innovation strategy and a significant increase in structural costs due to raw materials and energy demands. She described the education system as being “completely separate from the economy at large” as she advocated for the alignment of “education, economic development, workforce and business agendas so they work in concert to develop the talent necessary for business success in the global economy.” She described the certification system used by her organization to train workers for manufacturing careers as she stressed a need for renewed cooperation to produce a skilled STEM workforce.
Allyson Knox, Director of Education Policy and Programs at Microsoft Corporation described the STEM skills gap as seen from the Microsoft perspective. She underlined the public-private initiatives which allow Microsoft to promote the development of STEM skills and 21st century competencies. She recommended that Congress could strengthen the STEM pipeline by providing support to teachers, expanding access to STEM courses, strengthening job training opportunities and promoting college completion.
Sandra Westlund-Deenihan, CEO and Design Engineer at Quality Float Works stated that there is a skills gap in her company that “represents a significant challenge to production and hinders potential growth opportunities.” She described how that skills gap poses a “serious economic threat to American competitiveness,” and identified partnerships with schools, mentorship opportunities and by establishing a solid educational foundation as important education aspects that lead to student success in STEM fields.
Lazaro Lopez, Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning for Township High School District described the success of Wheeling [IL] High School which has a STEM focus and includes career certifications and dual credit opportunities. He highlighted the course sequence, external experiences, college credit and industry certification that have led to the school successfully having students with more competitive qualities following the completion of high school. Scalability of the success of Wheeling High School is possible, he stressed, as he outlined the means for delivery of curricula that are relevant to industry.
Catherine Hill, Director of Research at the American Association of University Women noted that “women are nearly half of the total workforce but less than a quarter of the STEM workforce” as she emphasized a need for recruiting more women into nontraditional fields and STEM fields. She discussed a need for ensuring institutional practices that do not reinforce stereotypes, developing career pathways and instructional approaches that support students and exposing women in nontraditional fields to mentors. Lastly, she outlined the vital role that community colleges play in accessing STEM education.
Members were interested to hear about areas where further improvements are needed in classrooms. Terry was particularly interested in hearing witnesses comment on the role of community college as an effective mechanism for college access and affordability. Witnesses discussed performance outcomes and attitudes about students who choose to go to community college while gaining work experience. Schakowsky was interested to learn how the success of Wheeling High School could be replicated.
The bi-partisan interest in increasing STEM opportunities for students was a clear theme throughout the hearing. Members on both sides of the aisle shared an interest in providing companies with adequately trained job applicants and promoting successful practices for students to learn STEM subjects.