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Are we underestimating the scope of the nation’s challenge in STEM education?

The generally accepted definition of the problem is already severe. At today’s Global STEM Talent Summit in Washington, D.C., more than 100 business leaders have gathered to discuss solutions to the nation’s gaping STEM skills gap. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that an estimated one million STEM jobs are likely to be created by 2022, but the supply of talent is failing to keep up.

That estimate, however, is focused on classic STEM jobs: biotech, chemistry, engineering, software development, and other traditional technology fields. But where should we classify a marketing analyst who has to code an SQL database? Or a graphic designer who builds websites and mobile applications? Those may not be considered STEM jobs but they undeniably involve STEM-related skills.

It’s when we consider specific skills, not just jobs, that the true scale of the challenge becomes apparent. A whole range of STEM skills—from statistics to software development—have become essential for jobs that never would have been considered STEM positions.  Yet, at least as our education system is currently structured, students often only acquire these skills within a STEM track.

Consider coding, in many ways the gateway to the world of science, technology, engineering and math. That includes JavaScript and HTML for building websites, statistical programs such as R and SAS, AutoCAD programs for engineers, and general purpose computer programming languages such as Java or Python.

By that standard, there were seven million job openings in 2015 in occupations which value coding skills, according to research Burning Glass recently conducted for Oracle Academy. That one-year figure is seven times the BLS estimate of STEM jobs over a 10-year period.

For workers, what may be even more significant than the sheer number of jobs is the extent to which they dominate the opportunity to pursue a rewarding career. Consider:

  • Jobs that value coding comprise fully 20% of all jobs that pay a living wage, according to research from MIT.
  • Jobs requiring coding skills pay $22,000 per year more than jobs that don’t: $84,000 vs $62,000 per year. (This analysis includes only what the MIT researchers termed “career track jobs” – those that pay a living wage; when you include all jobs, the gap is even greater.)
  • Half of jobs in the top income quartile (those paying more than $57,000 per year) are in occupations which commonly require coding skills from job applicants.

There are five job categories where employers demand coding skills, and most of them are no surprise to those who follow the STEM debate: IT workers, Engineers, and Scientists, for example.Coding Jobs Are Available Across Careers: IT, Art and Design, Science, Engineering, and Data Analysis

But the list also includes Artists and Designers, which once would have been considered the antithesis of STEM roles. That, however, was before the Internet, tablets, and smartphones, tools that depend on design to make them actually usable by consumers. Fully half of art and design positions call for skills like HTML and JavaScript.

Another category would be Data Analysts, a job that barely existed five years ago. The growth of big data has created demand for analysts who can apply statistical expertise to practical business uses. Statistics is certainly a STEM skill, but business analysis just as certainly isn’t. Demand for these jobs has increased a staggering 372% since 2011, but that growth probably isn’t reflected in most counts of STEM jobs.

In addition, new sophisticated “hybrid” roles have emerged, like UI/UX designers and mobile app developers, which combine design and high-end programming skills. This is a classic example of jobs being created by technological change. Hybrid jobs are a mashup of skills that are rarely taught together in college programs—including traditional STEM training programs.

Any real solution to our STEM challenge should take these hybrid jobs into consideration. Getting more students into math and science programs is crucial if we are to ensure that we have enough scientists and engineers to power our economy. That’s imperative to a long-term solution.

But we should also plan for ways in which workers can pick up the individual STEM skills that are increasingly woven into the substance of jobs across the economy – not just in STEM fields. The good news is that there are many short-term options: boot camps, online courses, and other non-traditional routes that allow people to learn as their careers progress.

The STEM challenge in the job market is continually evolving. We should have a strategy that allows workers to evolve with it.

Matthew Sigelman is CEO of Burning Glass Technologies.
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