Bridging the STEM Gap

Posted On April 17, 2017 By Protolabs

Employees with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) backgrounds remain in high demand as high schools and colleges work to train future employees in this curriculum. There is a notable gap between the skill sets that employers are seeking in STEM fields and the amount of qualified people who are available to fill them. School districts, universities and businesses are beginning to recognize this disconnect and have been working in recent years to raise awareness about the importance of STEM-based education, which provides the skills needed for many technology-driven employment opportunities.

Jobs of the Future

Educators and school district officials will tell you that currently we are preparing our kids for jobs we don’t even know exist yet, and we have to emphasize STEM fields in order to keep them ahead of the curve when it comes to the future economy and career opportunities.

According to the Brookings Institute, a private nonprofit organization that focuses on independent research and policy solutions globally, 20 percent of all jobs in the United States required STEM knowledge in 2011 and STEM-based careers have doubled as a share of all jobs since the industrial revolution. The U.S. Department of Commerce determined that STEM jobs in the U.S. are projected to grow 17 percent from 2008 to 2018. And the Bureau of Labor statistics indicates that come 2022, more than 2.1 million jobs will be created in STEM-related fields.

Protolabs offers jobs that fall into a mix of STEM fields: CAD/CAM analysis, software development, information technology, manufacturing, engineering and finance. In 2014, our U.S. offices hired 56 employees in these fields and developed internship programs to engage students and new graduates.

Also, according to Protolabs’ senior human resources manager, Michele Bryan, we’ve started expanding our ongoing search into the engineering sector within the last three or four years. However, Bryan said that it has been difficult to find people to fill these needed roles due to the uniqueness of our business model.

“For us, it’s hard to find the right skill set that fits our existing model if we’re looking for someone with experience,” Bryan said. “Typically, people don’t have experience that directly correlates to Protolabs’ unique manufacturing process. What we often come up against is people who are very used to a traditional way of engineering and manufacturing. Our goal is to find people who want to think outside that conventional box and utilize technology to automate, streamline and improve the overall manufacturing process. We seek out individuals who are innovative, smart and determined to help us continue to revolutionize the industry.”

Importance of Education

Five years ago, the Obama administration released a report on the state of STEM in the United States. The report indicated that only 16 percent of math-proficient high school students chose to advance into a STEM path in college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, retention of those students in STEM fields is shaky with only 36 percent of students remaining in their originally declared STEM field, though 16 percent of undeclared majors later enrolled in STEM courses.

Dr. Lesa Covington Clarkson, a professor of mathematics and co-director of the STEM Education Center at the University of Minnesota said that those figures certainly reflect what is going on with math and science.

“Students who are interested in [math and science] early on are not pursuing those fields through college. They are good in those fields, but they refuse to go into them, especially in education,” Covington Clarkson said. “There’s a huge need for people like that in the education industry to ensure all students are prepared...most students though, if they choose to go into these areas, find something in a field outside of teaching that’s more lucrative for them.”

Protolabs’ global recruitment staff has also noticed this gap as it has been challenging to fill certain STEM-related positions. They believe that engineering needs to be made interesting and desirable for future generations and that product design has been blurred as analytical skills have taken a back seat to visual elements. They feel that universities are leaving out crucial skills in their courses. The lack of educators in these fields could also contribute to this. In Europe and Japan, the addition of 3D printing to postsecondary schools has sparked more interest in manufacturing, but when to use particular technologies, and how lucrative manufacturing can be, is important to tell future generations of engineers.

As the STEM gap has been recognized, school districts across the U.S. have added new programming to their classrooms as well. They’ve added an art and design element to enhance STEM programming, often referred to as STEAM. 3D printers are sometimes found in classrooms and programs from summer camps to robotics to hands-on experiences in class, some starting as early as kindergarten. All have the goal of generating STEM excitement in kids at a young age.

A Symbiotic Relationship

“One of the things I’ve seen firsthand is that there is greater collaboration between business and education,” Covington Clarkson said. “The lines of communication are really opening and this is great because it helps educational institutions know exactly what companies want and need in their future employees. We can use that to start training and preparing the future generations in these fields. It’s a two-way need and a two-way support system that is really beneficial for everyone involved.”

Protolabs contributes to this collaboration with academia by providing a plethora of free educational resources on our website. We provide a hands-on experience for students by giving professors and teachers access to our manufacturing design aids such as the Torus, Protogami, Design Cube, and Demo Mold as well as our books on digital manufacturing and injection molding.

Through our Protolabs Foundation, we’ve given schools the funding needed to provide STEM program support and help purchase equipment that students can use to learn more about manufacturing. We have established a partnership with Delano High School in Minnesota and participate in its science and technology expo each year.

Our HR team participated in a job fair at University of Wisconsin-Stout in March and were impressed with the students they met. Bryan feels the addition of STEM curriculum in schools can help build a stronger foundation, particularly in math, software development, engineering and analytical thinking—four skill sets, besides work experience, that she said are important qualifications that Protolabs seeks in filling STEM-related positions.

The end goal of this healthy relationship between educators and employers is to increase global competitiveness of students worldwide.

In the U.S., this initiative seems to be working. The 2013-2014 Competitiveness Report released by indicated that the U.S. has moved two positions to a rank of fifth place in the world after falling for the previous four years. According to this ranking, the American economy is getting back on track, schools continue to have excellent education and companies continue to push innovation further each year.

There’s still room for improvement, but the renewed focus on STEM education will help sustain and further proliferate the technological advancements made in the modern day manufacturing sector.