Adapting Education to Overcome the STEM Workforce Shortage

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Many recruiters these days are struggling to overcome the shortage of prized skills in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. To address this problem, the U.S. government recently announced a $200 million initiative to teach computer coding to young girls and minority students — groups typically underrepresented in the STEM field — in U.S. schools.

The administration’s actions reflect a growing awareness that society must create more effective ways to train workers for new roles in the digital economy.

Federal funding for in-school training programs is a good first step that should have an impact over time, but what can be done in the near term? One proven approach to meeting the growing demand for STEM grads is to harness the transferable skills and critical thinking of our citizenry not currently trained in STEM.

By identifying people from diverse backgrounds who want to be re-skilled for high-demand, high-worth tech jobs and matching them with the coursework they need to obtain STEM degrees, we can bridge the tech skills gap in the short term. STEM fields offer exceptional employment opportunities, long-term career potential, and competitive salaries that are up to 26 percent higher than other professions, so finding people who want to be re-skilled should not be too difficult.

One solution involves offering STEM bridge courses toward a graduate STEM degree to those from non-STEM bachelor’s degree backgrounds. In addition, by partnering with technology companies, educational institutions are developing more modern curricula to meet the timely demand for a cutting-edge STEM workforce. Such transition programs will be critical to building the skills and workforce diversity necessary to maintain U.S. competitiveness.

Taking a More Direct Path to the STEM Pipeline

Educators have begun to recognize the value of creating a more direct path to a Master of Science degree in high-demand fields such as computer science, bioinformatics, and cybersecurity. For example, Northeastern University’s ALIGN program integrates substantial firsthand work experience in the field into each student’s coursework. Options include internships, co-ops, and mentorships. In this way, non-STEM students can build their resumes while still working toward their graduate degrees.

Academic bridge courses enable students to connect their past undergraduate experiences to new STEM career paths. In this way, people can quickly navigate career changes and break into tech fields without needing to earn additional bachelor’s degrees.

Another approach involves plugging non-STEM students into broader networks beyond campus so that they gain exposure to employer partners, alumni, and other industry professionals.

Launching Tech Boot Camps to Put STEM Boots on the Ground

Another strategy to grow the STEM workforce involves short re-skilling programs that combine many educational elements, including high-demand skills training, hands-on work experience, and networking opportunities.

At Northeastern University, we have developed a fast-track program for re-skilling and upskilling known as “Level Education,” which includes a significant experiential component with industry partners. Course requirements vary with no GRE requirements, and all graduates receive a certificate and the option to further their education through a variety of master’s programs.

The Level Education program offers a range of ways to accommodate busy schedules. Students can choose between introductory, intermediate, and focused courses with flexible class formats including full-time, part-time, and hybrid courses combining in-person and online coursework.

Currently, Northeastern has more than 300 students and alumni involved in these programs nationwide. In each case, a program professional supports the student for a one-on-one capstone project in which the student applies newfound data skills to solve real-world problems. These capstone projects culminate with final reports in which students make formal presentations to real-world employers.

All these innovative approaches can help more students graduate with technical certificates and portfolios of relevant projects that showcase the practical application oif their skills.

We can no longer depend on 20th century educational models to build a 21st century workforce. Arming non-STEM graduates with new STEM skills and real-world experiences is the most direct way to instill the necessary confidence and optimism that can lead to new career opportunities.

PK Agarwal is CEO and regional dean of Northeastern University-Silicon Valley and former CTO for California under Governor Schwartzenegger.

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PK Agarwal is an accomplished executive whose distinguished career in high tech spans the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi and two master’s degrees – one in mechanical engineering from California State University, Sacramento, the other in operations research from the University of California, Berkeley.