East Tennessee races to build future STEM workforce

It’s critical to plan 20-25 years in advance for the jobs of tomorrow, according to Craig Layman, associate director for workforce development for the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

But how can you start to develop a roadmap for that far into the future when it’s a struggle to fill some of the jobs of today?

In East Tennessee – and across the country – finding the right candidates and enough candidates to take over advanced positions in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields has become a constant battle.

STEM occupations are at an all-time high, Layman said, while U.S. universities are struggling to keep up with the demand.

The number of U.S. jobs that need significant STEM skill sets has jumped by about 34 percent in the last decade, according to Oak Ridge Associated Universities’ 2018 annual report.

“We don’t see any indicators of this market slowing down,” Layman said.

That’s particularly true for computer science fields, he said, noting that while American universities are producing many graduates in computer science, they’re simply not turning out enough for the current market.

That shortfall has prompted reliance on talent from foreign universities to plug the gap, according to Layman.

The root of the problem

The root of the problem is difficult to pinpoint as several converging factors are fueling the shortage of career-ready STEM professionals – a booming economy boasting a low unemployment rate, a struggle to attract STEM talent and a struggle to retain STEM graduates in those fields.

Without a strong enough pipeline to continue advancing STEM fields into the future, where does that leave East Tennessee and the U.S. in the global economy?

Don Johnson, STEM Workforce Solutions, poses for a portrait in his office at the ORAU campus in Oak Ridge, Tennessee on Thursday, June 13, 2019.Buy Photo

The U.S. has the best economy in the world with China ranked second and closing, said Don Johnson, an economist at ORAU.

“And we’re going to need more scientists and engineers to make that keep happening…to keep us competitive,” Johnson said, underlining the need for “scientists and engineers in fields that are in demand.”

Johnson also touted how much a strong base of STEM professionals can advance a community, citing Oak Ridge’s history as an example.

Before the U.S. Army acquired the land that is now home to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in late 1942 to push forward the Manhattan Project, the average educational level in the area was much lower, according to Johnson.

“But this area then became, because of the concentration of scientific and engineering workforce (and) manpower here, incredibly highly skilled because of the scientists and engineers and researchers that were brought into this area to work on the atomic bomb during the war.”

After the war, they stayed to build nuclear reactors now located across the country that generate electricity.

“That was a revolution to this area,” Johnson said.

‘Really hot economy’ challenges employers’ talent search

The national unemployment rate, which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cited at 3.6% in May, is the lowest it’s been since 1969, according to Johnson.

More narrowly, the unemployment rate for computer and mathematical occupations stood at 1.3% in May while the unemployment rate for architecture and engineering occupations was at 2.3%. The unemployment rate for life, physical and social science occupations was at 1.9%.

"In good times or bad, unemployment rates for workers in STEM occupations have historically tended to be lower than the overall unemployment rate," Johnson said.

Right now, in what Johnson terms “a really hot economy,” the unemployment rates for STEM disciplines are still below overall unemployment.

The numbers point to “a shortage of skilled people,” Johnson said.

One reason for that shortage? Johnson said they can't find the workers.

Students work on crafting their kites during a STEM summer class at Greve Hall on the UTK campus in Knoxville, Tennessee on Wednesday, June 12, 2019. Students were building kites made of string, paper and straws to learn about aerodynamics. Buy Photo

Currently, there are more openings in the U.S. for citizens with STEM skills in certain fields than there are U.S. citizens with those skills, Johnson said, and with low unemployment rates, in computer occupations for example, “there aren’t that many people out there waiting that are available for new jobs.”

It’s an immediate problem that Johnson believes will adjust over time, explaining “people move into fields where they hear there’s high demand, so they’ll go get the training and education degrees necessary.”

“We’re part of that process in that we help the colleges and universities find internships for them along the way to enhance those knowledges and skills,” Johnson said.

Developing a future workforce with ‘experiential’ programming

ORAU was chartered in 1946 for the sake of building workforce development momentum in STEM fields – a mission that has carried the nonprofit through the last 73 years, Layman said.

ORISE – the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education – came to life in 1992 as an institute of the U.S. Department of Energy that is managed by ORAU and that largely exists to recruit and train the next wave of STEM employees.

ORAU, which administers most of its programs through ORISE, offers work-based learning opportunities in the form of internships, research experiences and fellowships and has about 10,000 participants across approximately 400 research centers in the U.S., according to Layman.

Many of the programs cater to the U.S. Department of Energy, particularly its Office of Science, he said, and out of those its largest programs operate at ORNL, where it places about 1,400 individuals.

Those opportunities are co-curricular and bridge a learner’s experience back to academia, Layman said.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Erica Breunlin

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org


Published July 3, 2019