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America’s STEM Crisis Is No Conspiracy Theory

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 in the U.S.

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.

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.
Our edits.
The nuclear energy industry is dedicated to ensuring that we have a knowledgeable and skilled workforce to operate safely and securely. The industry devotes a significant amount of effort and resources to counteract current demographic trends. That includes nearly $40 million donated to universities and community colleges in the past three years to support nuclear science programs.  Some other industry initiatives include:

·         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.


trag said…
You should stick to the nuclear industry. In fields such as electrical engineering and chip design, there is no shortage of trained workers. However, companies create an artificial shortage with ridiculous hiring policies.

For example, only new graduates will be considered for "entry-level" jobs. If a person has as little as six months of experience, or has a little experience and is currently in graduate school, that person will not be considered for "new-grad" jobs because he isn't about to graduate, even though he has the relevant degree, and possibly more qualifications.

Given a choice between working at Home Depot or taking a "new grad" position, plenty of qualified engineers with experience would take the latter, but they will not be considered.

And, at the same time, corps can lament the "shortage" of new grads.

There may be a shortage of trained nuclear engineers, but there is no shortage of trained technical personnel in the USA -- only a blight of ridiculous hiring practices and either lying or blindness on the part of corporations.
Anonymous said…
"You should stick to the nuclear industry."

Umm, looks like she does
Mike Walker said…
The points here are very true and something I plan to address in my own blog at Nuclear Street, moreover, these points DO go beyond the nuclear industry. Not long ago in Florida, a major defense contractor was unable to fill a number of software engineering positions because they could not find people who both had the desired coding skills plus were able to pass the single-scope background investigation required (as many who did have the education and skills were foreign nationals). These were very good, well-paying, engineering positions that long went vacant.

There is also in my view a very serious concern about the number of people who undertake an education in STEM fields—especially the hard sciences and engineering—who are not US citizens. Some may well choose to remain in the US past their education and work here, but it is also possible they will not. We need to ask ourselves where US citizens—kids who grow up in the US—are not themselves obtaining STEM degrees. I do not say this as a xenophobic issue at all: to be clear, I don't care if the entire engineering department is Asian or Indian or whatever, but I am very concerned that we are relying on a workforce for the most complex technological jobs made up increasingly of people who are not even in many cases US citizens. What does that say about our nation and our educational priorities?
Engineer-Poet said…
In other words, there is a 2-sided problem here:

1.  The influx of both foreign-born students to STEM programs and foreign-educated STEM degree holders on H1B visas depresses wages and eliminates job security for citizens, causing college students to select other career tracks such as business and law.
2.  The lack of high-quality, native-born STEM graduates is a problem for the nuclear industry.

It sounds like the nuclear industry should act as a counterweight to Mark Zuckerberg and try to dry up the supply of cheap-but-foreign STEM employees, and get legislation to guarantee some level of career (or at least income) security for domestic STEM degree holders.
Anonymous said…
I'm sure the author is quite right that the nuclear industry is facing a shortage of skilled young nuclear engineers. However, that does not make the "STEM Crisis" any less of a myth for the nation as a whole and its education system.

And if every kid in the nation took all the math & science possible it would not help the nuclear industry.

The real problem for the nuclear industry is that for years it has not been seen as having a promising future. And for years that's been an accurate assessment. People who go into engineering are trained (and like) to build new things. When was the last new nuclear power plant built in the US? Will there ever be another? Why go nuclear - when for the same effort & cost, you can go into a field that is doing new and exciting things, like CS, EE, Mech E, Bio, etc.???

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