STEM Series: Unfilled Jobs Due To Lack Of Qualified Workers
The reason? A Lack of Competence In the STEM areas.
Connecticut’s unemployment rate is still over eight percent. And yet there are industries in the state that cannot find people to fill vacant jobs.
In his State of the State address last week, Governor Malloy told legislators that in many places, Conneticut’s schools are failing to teach students the kinds of skills and knowledge they need.
"As I traveled around the state last summer on my jobs tour, nothing was more frustrating than a refrain I heard from too many employers. They said, I have job openings, but I can’t find workers in Connecticut with the skills to fill them."
The reason? A lack of competence in the STEM areas: Science, technology, engineering and math. Today we begin a special, week-long investigation of the problem, starting with WNPR’s Harriet Jones.
This is the shopfloor at Peter Paul Electronics in New Britain, a factory that builds solenoid valves. Judy Spreda is the Human Resources manager here. She’s the one who sees new hires, usually high school graduates, come in through the door.
“They’re very lacking in basic math, they’re lacking in problem solving, they’re lacking in….. the only way I can describe it is, they don’t know how to go to work.”
She says this company has plenty of work, but increasingly no-one to do it.
“We have a set-up man in his 70s, we have an assembler who is 76 years old. You know these people are getting ready to retire. And there’s nobody there. So we need to do something quickly.”
And Peter Paul is typical of many manufacturers in the state. The Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology estimates that there are some 1000 unfilled jobs currently available in skilled trades. That’s the picture for employers who need high school graduates. What about those companies looking for college grads with technical skills?
“I would say it is the most difficult time in over 15 years. It’s just unbelievable. I’ve never seen the lack of qualified people.”
That’s Mark Richards, who runs a recruitment firm in Shelton called eRichards Consulting. At the end of last year he had more than 40 vacancies from client companies for IT professionals that he could not fill.
“You have a major trend in this country where kids don’t go for a computer science degree, and don’t see that being a geek is a field they want to go into.”
So what has happened in this state, the home of Eli Whitney, Frederick Stanley and Igor Sikorsky? Professor David Fearon of Central Connecticut State University says the decline has been decades in the making.
"Right up until 63 or 64, Connecticut was one of those locales that had lots and lots of firsts. The What the heck happened after 62? Where are the people who can create the firsts, and why not here?”
I’m Diane Orson. Susan Palisano spends a great deal of time pondering that very question… And how to solve it. She’s the director of Education and Training for the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology. Palisano says the problem starts early, way back in elementary school.
"Our kids actually do well in math and science up until about the fourth grade. We begin a gradual decline and a slope that increases in its angle. And by the time our students are in 12th grade they have fallen woefully behind on a global arena from other students."
Susan Palma of the Education Connection in Litchfield works with teachers on ways to improve math and science education. She says a fundamental shift needs to take place in American attitudes towards the study of math and science.
"You never hear someone say, 'I’m not good at reading'. But you often hear that 'I’m not good at math or I was never good at science'. And that has a real impact, the way our culture views mathematics and science."
Palma says research shows the human brain more easily grasps math concepts than learning to read. But much of the way math is taught leaves kids feeling unengaged. Jack Hammer entered teaching after a career as a computational chemist at a drug discovery company. He’s now a high school chemistry teacher in the Milford public schools.
"As science teachers, maybe we need to do a better job of communicating the excitement of the process of science. You know when you look at a lot of the science curricula at the high school level we’re telling them a lot about the results of science, but we’re not really getting them engaged in the process of science – doing more scientific thinking. Adopting more habits of mind of a working scientist."
I’m Neena Satija. That’s exactly what Yale University professor Jo Handelsman believes needs to happen at the college level as well. According to a recent report Handelsman helped author for President Obama, if science and math departments can’t retain more college students, the country will face a shortage of a million STEM workers in the next decade.
"In this country, 60 percent of the students who start out as science majors end up in the social sciences and humanities. So clearly, we’re not keeping the people who even initially think they’re interested in science, we’re not keeping them interested.”
Last year Handelsman founded the Yale Center for Scientific Teaching with the goal of training a new generation of graduate students to become better teachers in the STEM areas. She wants to keep more students in science. But she also wants students who aren’t ultimately science majors to leave college with a respect for the subject.
And that, she says could revolutionize attitudes about science and the STEM industry in this country.