Sunday, May 20, 2012

On the STEM Skills gap

I have, in the past, weighed in on the question of over-producing Ph.D., and I will probably never run out of things to say on this topic.  But recently I've been thinking about the flip side of this problem, sometimes called the STEM Skills Gap.  You see, there are apparently many companies and recruiters who are at a loss to find qualified people to fill positions under that STEM umbrella (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).  From my perspective, this is why I get rejected for positions that require some clinical trials experience, or GxP experience.  Locally, employers like Boeing and Amazon need employees to push forward the boundaries of modern manufacturing, and run their SQL data bases or use Sharepoint or other things that we don't do in school.  The argument is that if 'we' (in this case the US or WA workforce) don't provide adequate workers, these jobs will go elsewhere.  I get that, the company needs a workforce that provide the engine of labor to move forward.

What I don't get is why they think these skills are so hard to come by- in contrast to, say, a Ph.D.  All of those 'experiences' I mentioned before are simply things a bright person could pick up on the job.  In a era of tight budgets, there is no time or money to train an insufficient candidate, and apparently leaving a role empty is less of a burden than hiring someone who might be inefficient at their role for a period. Is there a place where there is an experienced workforce ready to mobilize on these challenges?  If these companies don't stay here, where are they going instead, and how are those workers prepared that those of us here are not?  I'd really like to know the answer to this, I think we could learn a lot.

I like the phrase the Skills Gap, because it implies there is a disconnect on both sides.  Schools train us to do something no one will hire us to do directly, jobs are looking for people with training that doesn't exist.  If schools would help their graduates recognize that while your training may provide you expertise in some specific arena, this type of training prepares you, generally, to be successful in a wide array of fields.  And then those companies might be willing to look at these trainees with an eye towards their future, rather than just their ability today.  I think companies are too myopic in their hiring practices.  If the industry is as dynamic and changing as they insist it is, why aren't they looking for a workforce that is as well?  People who are brave enough to take on a technical challenge and have a history of success with other technical challenges are probably going to be just what Microsoft or Philips need to compete. 

I have one other gripe about this process- I don't believe that the people in charge of hiring really understand what they want and need in a candidate.  I was hired at the bank because (among other things) I am "good at math."  I took math up to 3 dimensional calculus; this does not make me a better teller.  Not once have I been asked to calculate an interest rate and returns for a client on the fly. I sometimes total checks and subtract withdrawals, but that is arithmetic- a skill set that I all but lost touch with by high school.  Yes, a teller needs to be comfortable with numbers and fairly detail oriented in that way, but no quantity of calculus will be required on that job. I often worry that I am overlooked as a candidate because my experience doesn't match verbatum the ambitions of a hiring manager who is asking for the stars and willing to settle in between.

I will recognize that if I had been involved in an actual clinical trial as a graduate student, my job prospects would be better.  But our work was funded to be basic research by the NIH.  I did some drug discovery, which means I learned how to pull the very interesting parts out of huge datasets, and how to refine my assumptions by performing iterative analysis.  Unfortunately, potential employers seem to believe that the ability to submit a 510K for FDA approval is WAY more important to my potential for success than my capacity to solve problems.  Sure, the first is easier to quantify.  But there are much fewer funding opportunities for academic researchers who have interest in commercializing their science.  This is why so few of us come out of our training with that perspective.

When I hear educators complain about the leaky STEM pipeline, my heart breaks.  They are looking at students who can't perform in basic skills categories that make it nearly impossible for them to perform, let alone compete for good jobs and opportunities.  When I hear employers talk about the leaky pipeline, I want to scream.  To them, the biggest leak is those who stay in the pipeline and fail to train into the fields that we didn't know existed.  But I don't want to leave this as just an angry tirade.  The gap is real, and it is part of the compartmentalized cultures of "academia" and "industry."  All parties need to do better about seeking out input from the other side about what funding can be earned, what training should be provided and what skills will be necessary to present a workforce that keeps up with the changing demands of the global economy.

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