I can attest that the STEM crisis is real and is causing challenges for the nuclear energy industry. My experiences contradict the conclusions of the newly published IEEE article by Robert N. Charette that declared “The Stem Crisis Is a Myth” According to Charette, industry and government are conspiring to help depress salaries for STEM workers. “Clearly powerful forces must be at work to perpetuate this cycle.”
Unfortunately for industries like ours, the STEM crisis isn’t a crackpot conspiracy theory. In fact, it’s all too real. In the nuclear energy business, we have an aging workforce that is rapidly approaching retirement age. We’re facing a significant demographic challenge with 38 percent of our workforce eligible to retire by 2016.
Here are some disturbing trends I’ve identified over the last five years that have helped lead me and other workforce professionals to conclude we are facing a real -- and not a manufactured -- crisis:
· Students entering our colleges and universities are woefully unprepared to study STEM subjects;
· Because U.S. colleges and universities enroll so many international students in STEM fields (anywhere between 40 and 70 percent in graduate schools depending on courses of study), American citizens are not earning enough STEM degrees; and hence …
· There is a shortage of Americans with the right skills to fill STEM jobs.
I am not alone in my observations; these trends have been measured and documented by representatives of other industries who are equally alarmed like the National Association of Manufacturers, National Association of Remodeling Industry, American Hospital Association and Health Physics Society. Ironically, while Charette claims that the STEM crisis is a myth, he engaged in plenty of myth-making of his own in his IEEE article. A closer look at the numbers he uses reveals why:
This is an example of comparing apples to oranges. The only way this could be true is if you assume that all STEM degrees are interchangeable. A nurse and a computer engineer cannot be swapped in an org chart. Even though it is not a perfect science, workforce planning analyses used to forecast the supply and demand for graduates are critical. Higher education institutions, workforce systems, government and industry must continue to improve them so that students and parents can make educated decisions about which fields hold the most career potential.
Myth #2: “If you apply the Commerce Department’s definition of STEM to the NSF’s annual count of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, that means about 252,000 STEM graduates emerged in 2009. … That still leaves 70,000 graduates unable to get a job in their chosen field.”
As I mentioned previously, 40 to 70 percent of STEM graduates from American universities are international citizens. Some American industries, like nuclear energy, cannot employ these graduates in many of our positions because of security reasons. Once you subtract STEM graduates with a mismatched education focus, and those who choose to work in other fields, the applicant pool shrinks significantly.
Myth #3: If there was a STEM workforce shortage, “You would see these companies really training their incumbent workers”
Our industry invests in our workforce. Around 6 percent of the nuclear utility workers are full-time training professionals. Their only focus is to train and re-train the other 60,000 incumbent workers. In 2012, industry spent more than $330 million to train our employees. This does not account for the tens of millions of dollars spent to send employees to the training programs instead of working in the plant.
· Developing the Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program to educate the next generation of nuclear power plant workers. In the past five years the program has grown to involve 35 schools, and enrolled 1,400 students. The program graduates nearly 500 students each year.
· Co-sponsoring the Center for Energy Workforce Development and supporting its mission to create a national workforce for the energy sector. This group has created many resources, including the Energy Industry Fundamentals course, which provides an online curriculum to prepare students for the rigors of energy-related training and education programs.
· Supporting diversity organizations like North American Young Generation in Nuclear and U.S. Women in Nuclear. These organizations provide support and professional development opportunities for 15,000 women and young professionals who are working in our industry.
So while I might agree with Charette that “powerful forces” are at work here, I’ll have to disagree with him about what’s actually happening. What we have here is the combination of an aging workforce, a flawed public education system and a broken H-1B visa system working together to harm many of America’s critical industries. So while Charette worries about conspiracy theories, the rest of us in STEM fields will get back to work fixing things.