Right now, there are over 600,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in America.
Many employers are eager to hire. They’ve got capital set aside specifically to invest in expanding their workforce. And they have applicants — problem is, many of them simply don’t have the training and education needed to perform the work.
Largely to blame is the “STEM” skills gap, so-called after the core subjects of science, technology, engineering and math. It’s real and it’s growing. If we’re going to retain America’s greatest competitive advantage — our genius for innovation — we must inspire more kids to pursue STEM skills through education that’s engaging and effective.
Over the last decade, the pool of domestic STEM jobs has expanded by over 12 percent and now sits at 7.3 million total positions. The advanced knowledge required for this work translates into significantly higher compensation, with the average annual STEM-industry wage crossing $82,000 — nearly double the average in the overall economy.
The bulk of these jobs are found in research-intensive industries like the one I work in, biopharmaceuticals.
My industry depends heavily on STEM-educated employees at most every stage of R&D and manufacturing in the process of making new medicines. For example, according to a new Battelle report prepared for PhRMA – the leading pharmaceutical industry association – nearly a third of the industry’s manufacturing workforce is comprised of STEM-related occupations. Many STEM jobs in biopharma don’t require as much formal schooling as high-end research positions, but still compensate well for specific STEM expertise. Such jobs include preclinical scientists, software developers, biostaticians, and lab techs.
And just like other STEM-centric industries, biopharmaceutical firms face a scarcity of incoming talent. Nationally, private industry is expected to add about one million new STEM positions over the next decade. But there aren’t even enough qualified applicants to replace the Baby Boomers retiring right now.
If we’re going to start closing the skills gap, we need to invest more in STEM education programs that engage and prepare American students for these careers. Our global competitors are far outpacing us in this regard. In math, American 15-year-olds rank a dismal 27th out of the 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In science, they’re 20th.
And this lag extends well into high school. The ACT college admissions test reports that just one-fourth of its takers are ready for college-level biology.
Meanwhile, other developed nations, particularly the Asian triad of China, Singapore and Japan, have heavily invested in student STEM programs for the express purpose of securing a competitive edge in the global economy. Shanghai ninth graders now have the highest math and science scores in the OECD.
The missed opportunity of the STEM skills gap isn’t limited to the specific industries that require such training. Done right, science and math classes equip students with critical faculties applicable in all kinds of professions – analytical skills that are valuable whether you’re running a law firm or a laundromat.
When it comes to inspiring kids to pursue STEM education, it’s critical to start as early as possible in the education process – from kindergarten on up – and help kids make the connection between STEM subjects and the miracles of the modern world. That’s the revelation that can spark the passion that fuels a career.
And STEM education shouldn’t simply involve solving equations on a chalkboard or a computer screen. It must be dynamic and hands-on.
Inquiry-based curricula and engaging activities like science fairs give young people a chance to take ownership of their learning and see how STEM can address real-world problems.
We also need to invest more as a society in great teachers who know their subject matter and can inspire students. Passion alone wouldn’t have propelled me to a successful STEM career. It had to be coupled with steady adult tutelage and encouragement. I had two excellent high school chemistry teachers and a college professor who guided me to the right doctoral program – and ultimately put me on a path to join Lilly as an organic chemist more than three decades ago.
For our part, Lilly is investing to support STEM education programs focused on integrated, inquiry-based, hands-on learning starting in elementary school, as well as initiatives that will get more high-performing teachers into the classroom. And we’re not alone.
According to the Battelle report, the U.S. biopharmaceutical industry and others that depend on a skilled workforce have made investments totaling hundreds of millions of dollars in the last five years in a broad range of local, state, and national initiatives aimed to help advance science literacy and improve the STEM talent pipeline. From this work, there’s a growing body of knowledge and proven-effective programs that achieve key goals to support great teachers, spur student recruitment, including outreach to women and minorities, and faster hands-on learning.
While this is encouraging news, much more is needed to close the skills gap. The public and private sectors must work together to mobilize all available resources to inspire more kids to pursue math and science education – and prepare them for successful STEM careers.
If we don’t, America risks falling further behind.