With a Little Help from India, Ambitious STEM Initiative Tries to Solve an Illusive Talent ‘Shortage’

The US2020 educational initiative to increase the United States’ capabilities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), is notable for its emphasis on cooperation with the private sector, …

The US2020 educational initiative to increase the United States’ capabilities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), is notable for its emphasis on cooperation with the private sector, specifically its founding leadership partners Tata Consulting Services (TCS), SandDisk, Cognizant, and Cisco Systems.

The plan is to engage a million STEM professionals in mentorship programs by 2020. There has been a fair amount of buzz around this, given that it involves President Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative and has the support of the Obama White House, but two questions remain: does the United States really have a shortage of STEM employees, and why are India-centric companies like TCS keen to participate?

“We have worked on STEM issues where it has to do with immigration,” Dan Crawford of the Economic Policy Institute told Nearshore Americas. “We have looked at whether or not there is a shortage of STEM workers in the US, and we have determined that there is not.”

In fact, the EPI’s Daniel Costa has challenged private sector research, specifically a study conducted by Microsoft, suggesting there will be a shortage of Americans with computer science-related skills in 2020. According to EPI, there are three flaws in Microsoft’s analysis: first, the assumption that “only individuals with a bachelor’s degree in computer science can fill jobs in computer-related occupations”; second, unemployment at 4 percent does not represents full employment  (unemployment should be “closer to 2 percent”); and third, there is little evidence of wage inflation in the sector.

The private sector and the government tell a different story, but agree with the EPI that the demand is beyond a narrow STEM definition. For example, UST Global’s CEO Sajan Pillai recently told the U.S. News 2013 STEM Conference that employers are not only looking for a specific skill set – they are also demanding workers who can learn and adapt over time. This is particularly true in areas where a number of skills collide, such as advanced manufacturing.

“Trying to match the workforce to the actual employment market is a challenge,” says Jason Grech, a partner with KPMG who works closely with manufacturers. “This is a real problem – there are general skills shortages.”

However, raising the general STEM education levels in the United States would still appear to be a reasonable proposition. The US2020 initiative, as well as its corporate sponsors, form part of a larger recognition that IT is in need of a cultural shift in which volunteering becomes more commonplace.

When PR has a Message

Certainly, having an India-centric firm like TCS sign up for the US2020 initiative positions them as a company that cares about having a well-educated workforce in the United States – a good plan, perhaps, given that legislation is plodding through Congress that would make it more difficult for India-centric outsourcers to rely on foreign workers on guest visas. But there is a larger story here, and one which the US government is aware of: IT workers are not like lawyers – they have a comparatively low rate of mentorship or of offering pro bono services.

To address the issue, US2020 will include a competition among five US cities to encourage STEM mentoring, with each city receiving $1 million in cash and support to corral private enterprise, charities, municipal governments, and philanthropists. The call came from President Clinton himself, who has asked for a million volunteers “to ensure that we’re going to have students take the courses that will inspire and prepare them for STEM careers.”

In committing to US2020, private enterprise will be front and center in helping solve the problem by contributing specific expertise. TCS, for example, is providing technology for the web-based matching of volunteer placements with STEM volunteers. The company already has its goIT Student Technology Program, which has expanded to ten US cities as well as to Toronto, Canada. That sends a good message, but is only one company example – again and again the word from experts is that the private sector has been missing in action when it comes to STEM mentorship and training.

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“CAD/CAM – computer aided design and computer aided manufacturing – is a strong trend, however, skilled labor is holding us back,” says Robert Chittim, Chair, School of Skilled Trades at St. Clair College in Windsor, ON, across the river from Detroit. “We are competing, and there are things the US and Canada can do better than overseas workers, but the private sector has to step up.”

Specific to US2020, the founding companies are committing 20 percent of their STEM employees to act as mentors for at minimum 20 hours per year by the year 2020 (hence, the name, “US2020”). They are also ponying up $2 million, with half of that coming from flash memory storage provider SanDisk. For its part, computer networking company Cisco Systems, which has its globalization center in Bangalore, India, has been arguing for increased investment in STEM workers for many years. With reference to US2020, Cisco’s CEO, John Chambers, put specific emphasis on encouraging “employees to spend more time mentoring youth and engaging them in hands-on learning experiences”.

Speaking of STEM

As it stands, US2020 has an impressive cohort of volunteer organizations onside, including Citizen Schools, Americorps, as well as technology innovators in education such as Hotchalk and AfterCollege. Though the EPI and even the Brookings Institute have called into question the extent of the STEM challenge, there is agreement that there is low presentation among women and some minorities – something Cognizant’s Making the Future program is intended to address. And the overall graduation numbers in the United States are not strong: only 4.5 percent of American students graduate in engineering, compared to 20 percent in Asia and 11 percent in Europe.

In response, the Obama administration is consolidating 226 federal STEM programs into 112, with the 2014 budget request of $3.1 billion for STEM education programs representing an increase of $195 million, or 6.7%.

The aim is to have an additional one million STEM graduates in the next ten years –strong cohort that supporters of US2020 hope will boost America’s prospects well into the 21st century.

 

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