Talent Management Challenge: Mismatch between STEM Jobs and STEM Workers

Governments around the world have published studies, statements and articles about the vast numbers of jobs and graduates in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields which are essential for their countries’ success by 2020. Each one has goals, quotas and targets for which they strive in the coming years.

For example, in the United States, the Presidents’ Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, ” … Point to a need for approximately one million more STEM professionals than the U.S. will produce at the current rate over the next decade if the country is to retain its historical preeminence in science and technology.

However, an equal number of articles and studies (if not more) actually point out the rest of the story. A giant mismatch exists between the number of jobs in the STEM fields and the number of qualified candidates to fill them … and for valid reasons.

In no particular order:

  • Students who graduate from degree programs in STEM fields often do not possess the qualifications required to do the work. In many cases (often in developed markets like the United States and the United Kingdom), the students lack the depth of math skills necessary. In other situations, often in emerging markets like India and China, they lack the communications and leadership skills required by the multinational corporations who try to hire them to work on teams. Some express a lack of mobility as well, which compounds the problem. Thus, the numbers of graduates may exist, but the quality (and location) of candidates to fill the hiring needs is a more accurate description of the problem.

BOTTOM LINE: Technical skills, leadership and language skills are non-negotiable to be successful in the 21st century.

  • The attrition rate for STEM workers starts on Day One. For example, let’s take Bachelor’s Degrees. According to this Georgetown University study, if you have 100 students who enter college and obtain a Bachelor’s Degree, 19 will graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in a STEM major. From there, only 10 of the 19 students will go to work in a STEM job immediately after college. Of those 10 people, only 8 of them will still be working in a STEM job after 10 years.

BOTTOM LINE: If that attrition rate was cut in half up front, the sheer number of “shortages” would be eliminated. All interested parties must work on root cause analysis.

  • Despite general perception, workers in STEM jobs are not always highly compensated around the world. In some cases, they can be perceived as having a negative environmental impact, so social status does not come with the job either. Experts claim that if there was such a shortage of workers, compensation would clearly go up for their skills. This has not happened consistently.

BOTTOM LINE: This goes back to the problem of having talent in the right place at the right time. The talent will either change to a non-STEM related job (see attrition point above) or change their physical location to a place where they believe compensation is commensurate with their responsibilities.

  • No consistent definition of the STEM jobs or the STEM talent exists to facilitate comparisons across countries or enable future projections. As The Levin Institute points out, “talent definitions are different from country to country; this renders it difficult, if not impossible in some instances, to make direct comparisons across countries.”

BOTTOM LINE: No one can accurately and consistently count STEM jobs or the headcount working in the STEM fields, or graduating in/around the STEM fields without common definitions across various languages. The absence of such measures prevents multinational corporations from being able to do accurate workforce planning related to STEM talent, and dilutes the effectiveness of their talent management strategies.

All hope is not lost … An action both individuals and companies can take to help current employees in STEM-related fields is to build their skills through ongoing professional development. According to the USA Today, many companies have cut back on their funding for employee training since the Great Recession.

For employees who work in the STEM fields, skill building is not optional. It is a matter of survival. Either individuals pay for continuing education, or employers supplement the costs. Otherwise, see the first bullet point above about lacking qualifications for openings in STEM jobs. The need to maintain those qualifications never goes away during one’s career in these fields.

Betsy Winkler is Partner at People Results. She can be reached on Twitter @BetsyWinkler1 or on email at bwinkler@people-results.com. Sign up to receive her and her colleagues’ blog at Current.