How Private Industry Can Help the U.S. Meet Demand for STEM Skills

By Vivek Sunder

Around the world, there’s a constant push for building a strong aptitude for science, technology, engineering and math skills among young people. We are surrounded by equations, algorithms, cryptocurrencies, coding, AI and machine learning. And landing the jobs of both today and the future depend on building a skilled workforce. 

According to the World Economic Forum, today’s top jobs already require a deep understanding of algorithms and math logic. The report also points out that complex problem solving, reasoning and ideation, technology design and programming are among the top 10 skills needed for the job market of 2025. We also know from the “Great Resignation” that the gap between the demand for qualified STEM workers far exceeds the supply of qualified candidates. Companies are resorting to expensive measures and benefits to attract and retain employees, but they don’t solve the problem of running out of qualified applicants.

The question remains: Are we doing enough to build the workforce of tomorrow, especially given the documented STEM learning loss due to the pandemic?

The State of U.S. STEM  

Math literacy is critical for the 21st-century workforce, yet 1 in 3 American students fail to achieve it —and that was before the pandemic ignited significant learning loss for students nationwide. According to a recent McKinsey report, many students have lost at least one mathematical ability in the past 2 years due to the pandemic.  

From a K-12 perspective, the National Science Board’s “The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2022” shows that the U.S. ranks higher in science literacy (7th out of 37 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] countries) than it does in mathematics literacy (25th of 37 OECD countries). But in higher education, the U.S. no longer leads in the number of STEM doctorates awarded. In 2019, Chinese universities produced just under 50,000 PhDs in STEM fields, while U.S. universities produced just 33,759. A Georgetown University report projects that by 2025 China’s yearly STEM PhD graduates will be nearly double the number of those in the United States. 

Numbers are rising in countries like China and India, because STEM skills in K-12 have been accelerated, creating more qualified candidates who move on to higher education. But how they are building STEM into the culture of their communities is the real story.

Learning from Global Efforts 

In 2017, the Ministry of Education in China officially added STEM education into all its primary school curricula, in an effort to build a stronger STEM foundation. It was a great first step. But making curriculum changes are only one component of creating a STEM-enabled workforce. Even in China, rolling out STEM curricula was slow due to a lack of qualified instructors and regional schooling differences.

Up until recently, parents in China were turning to the private tutoring industry and edtech solutions, such as online after-school tutoring, to fill the gaps left by schools not yet equipped to deliver a full STEM curriculum. But by some estimates, this approach worked too well, such that in the fall of 2021 China’s State Council issued new laws that effectively eliminated for-profit K-12 tutoring. The rationale for these laws was to drive more resources back to the schools themselves. And, although rules are still being hashed out, tutoring companies could be allowed to work as service providers through the schools or as authorized third-party tutors for on-campus, after-school supplemental learning programs.

Still, addressing the shortage of STEM teachers continues to be a hurdle. The India STEM Foundation is tackling this head-on by creating hands-on robotics programs and supporting teachers in the field, with more than 15,000 educators and household brand sponsors like Amazon, Tata Technologies, Ford and John Deere.

It’s important to note that corporations, the private tutoring industry and edtech brands are all stepping up in different ways to supplement and support government-driven initiatives to build more STEM resources into K-12 education. They recognize the importance of building the workforce now, in order to have qualified candidates down the road. And although different countries are approaching the problem in different ways, the consensus is that private industry has a large role to play in creating curricula, developing educators and enabling different methods of delivering STEM education.

The Role of Private Industry 

Private industry is currently best positioned to help build the tools and technologies that will enable teachers to create and deliver STEM education, whether in the classroom, through virtual classrooms, through special programs or on the students’ own time. As more supplemental learning models are tried, there is a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

In the U.S., supplemental learning in the form of in-person and online tutoring exists, but the practice has not been embraced as fully in America as in other countries. For example, estimates show that South Korea, a country six times smaller than the U.S, shows the market for tutoring at almost $14 billion annually, which is three times larger than the estimated U.S market.

Historically, tutoring has been perceived as an option only for higher-income families, contributing to the equality gap in STEM education. For the U.S. to catch up and create a more equitable system, public resources and private industry will need to cooperate to find ways to offer low-cost online tutoring to anyone who wants it. Only then will the system benefit enough students to begin to fill the pipeline of job candidates needed and create better pathways for students across the country, at all income and skill levels.

Corporations that hope to employ students in the future have a role to play as well. They can fund and support efforts to broaden STEM education resources and promote and channel resources to their employees and communities through development, partnerships and sponsorships. Similarly, U.S. venture capital firms should broaden support for supplemental learning brands to accelerate growth and uptake.

A final benefit of private industry involvement is that it allows students to learn at their own pace and master concepts comprehensively, without the pressure of a traditional classroom setting. Private companies are seeing positive STEM outcomes from more flexible learning styles and one-on-one tutoring where students are encouraged to try, fail and try again. Adapting the pace, objectives and content of STEM curricula to a student’s abilities and motivations will be key objectives within the industry in the coming years. Successful private companies recognize that technology tools alone are not enough to help students. But when technology tools are paired together with one-on-one human learning, students have the greatest chance of positive learning outcomes.

One learning model that has seen success is gamification. It’s been shown that by simply adding game-like elements to the lessons, students retain information longer and understand STEM concepts more easily. It provides instant feedback through digital platforms that can benefit both tutors and students. Further promoting educational equality, individualized and small group feedback can help struggling students get extra assistance when needed without stigma. This type of hyper-personalized supplemental learning, using tools like AI, leverages modern data analytics to meet each student’s exact needs.

Reversing Learning Loss  

Reducing learning loss – through the use of innovative teaching models, tools and technology platforms created and supported by private industry – has the potential to directly reduce the billions of dollars governments may need to spend on boosting STEM resources from within. This is not to say that governments and public entities should abandon efforts to build national STEM curricula or reduce support for educators wanting to add more STEM resources to the classroom. In fact, both paths should, and must, happen in parallel.

For many generations, education systems around the world focused on memorization rather than understanding. Now is the time to replace 20th-century blackboard way of learning with the reasoning way of learning, where knowing the WHY is more important than the WHAT. By revisiting how we teach STEM knowledge, we can help students prepare for the jobs of the future. 

STEM skills are core to leveling up and represent a gateway to unlocking human capabilities and personal advancement. The countries that develop the path of least resistance to STEM education will undoubtedly advance their economies faster than others. But it will take cooperation, focus and funding from all facets of the education industry. With the pressure mounting to equip students with the STEM skills needed to meet future demand, it’s time for private industry to take a larger role in creating the path forward.

About Vivek Sunder

Vivek Sunder is CEO of Cuemath, an online learning platform for Math.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.