There's a simple answer, and a complicated one. Simple: It's about jobs. Complicated: It's a key to the U.S. economy, representing the growing disconnect between the skills that employers need in an increasingly technological world and the talent—or lack thereof—that the education system produces.
It's also a terrible acronym that represents the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. But as with lots of famous acronyms—SALT, NASA—STEM has become shorthand for an important issue and a burgeoning industry of schools, community groups, companies, and policy makers who are trying to solve the problem. The challenge extends from toddlers (Sesame Street has a numbers-focused initiative) up through literal rocket scientists. It is as much about the decline of middle-class jobs (manufacturing is a high-tech industry) as it is about inventing the next iPad.
[See The Future Workforce.]
STEM is also a topic that U.S. News has begun to dissect in great detail. The intersection of education and jobs in a changing marketplace is critical for both policy makers and consumers. We can help untangle the subject on both levels through news coverage, commentary, and data. Recently, we began a STEM blog (usnews.com/stem) to corral the growing amount of news on the subject. There are thousands of STEM programs in the federal government, plus state and local efforts—although those efforts are disorganized and not on a big enough scale.
In the job market, consider that there are approximately 3 million unfilled positions because companies can't find workers with basic technical skills. There's expected to be about 10 million such openings by 2020. Consider that a two-year degree in a STEM field is worth more than a four-year liberal arts diploma. So how do we relay better information to our readers? Stitching together employer needs with education skills into a career pathway will be crucial.
Jobs are the outcome, but it all starts with education. Something has to change. The current system cannot produce the talent needed, and it's imperative to train better teachers and leverage their skills with technology. How do we keep girls from dropping out of higher math, and prevent minorities from steering away from it in the first place? Our ranking of Best High Schools for Math and Science, launched in late May, is a powerful tool to address some of those questions. In June, we hosted the first national STEM convention in Dallas. For three days the best thinkers from business, education, and government lead discussions on filling jobs now and preparing our future workforce. Our theme was "STEM Means Jobs."
Americans were shocked when the Russians put the Sputnik satellite into space in 1957 and grabbed a lead in global technology. We responded with a massive push to upgrade math and science education. The problem now is no less urgent. While our interest has diminished, the rest of the world's has grown. Whether we can muster the same intensity to catch up will be one of the great questions of the next few years. I'd like to hear your thoughts on the STEM challenge. Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.