Tech Executive Sounds Alarm About Need for U.S. Investment in STEM Education

Future American economic competitiveness depends on nation’s ability to engage and train a robust STEM-focused workforce.

Gordon Coburn is the president of Cognizant, a leading provider of information technology, consulting, and business process services, dedicated to helping the world's leading companies build stronger businesses.     
National Journal
Gordon Coburn
March 28, 2014, 12:30 a.m.

For too long now, we have all seen the head­lines be­moan­ing the “skills gap”, the dearth of qual­i­fied U.S. work­ers to fill a fast-grow­ing slate of jobs in sci­ence, tech­no­logy, en­gin­eer­ing and math­em­at­ics (STEM). April 1 will mark the start of this year’s ap­plic­a­tion peri­od for high-skilled for­eign-born work­ers seek­ing U.S. work visas. So many of the world’s tal­en­ted work­ers are ex­pec­ted to ap­ply that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment will stop ac­cept­ing ap­plic­a­tions in a mat­ter of days, if not hours. That’s why Amer­ic­an busi­nesses can no longer ac­cept the status quo. We have an ob­lig­a­tion to foster a pas­sion for STEM edu­ca­tion right here.

Why STEM? The stat­ist­ics are alarm­ing. Only 16 per­cent of U.S. high school seni­ors are con­sidered pro­fi­cient in math­em­at­ics and are also in­ter­ested in a STEM ca­reer, ac­cord­ing to the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment. Even among those who pur­sue STEM courses in col­lege, only about half go on to work in STEM fields. The Or­gan­iz­a­tion for Eco­nom­ic Co­oper­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment’s 2012 Pro­gram for In­ter­na­tion­al Stu­dent As­sess­ment found that 15-year-olds in the U.S. ranked 26th out of 34 OECD coun­tries in math­em­at­ics. In sci­ence, the res­ult was only slightly bet­ter. Even worse, neither of these rank­ings has budged sig­ni­fic­antly over time.

These res­ults are self-de­feat­ing. STEM fields rep­res­ent the jobs of the fu­ture.

Ac­cord­ing to the Bur­eau of Labor Stat­ist­ics, sci­ence and tech­no­logy-re­lated oc­cu­pa­tions are grow­ing at around twice the rate of the over­all U.S. work­force. Take soft­ware de­velopers — the num­ber of jobs in this field is ex­pec­ted to grow 22 per­cent by 2022, much faster than the 11 per­cent growth an­ti­cip­ated across all oc­cu­pa­tions. And these are avail­able, good-pay­ing jobs.

The me­di­an an­nu­al wage for a soft­ware de­veloper in 2012 was $93,350. Between 2009 and 2012 across the STEM oc­cu­pa­tions, there were 1.9 job open­ings for every un­em­ployed per­son, ac­cord­ing to a study re­leased by Change the Equa­tion, a CEO-led ini­ti­at­ive to drive STEM learn­ing in the U.S. Dur­ing that same peri­od, the broad­er labor-mar­ket situ­ation re­mained far dif­fer­ent. The coun­try’s un­em­ploy­ment rolls in­cluded 3.6 un­em­ployed in­di­vidu­als for each avail­able job.

A Geor­getown Uni­versity Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force ana­lys­is found that by 2018, there will be as many as 2.4 mil­lion job open­ings for STEM oc­cu­pa­tions, with four out of five of these jobs re­quir­ing at least some form of post­sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion.

In the United States, we’re fail­ing to train our kids to be pro­fi­cient in math and sci­ence. Stu­dents who do take STEM courses of­ten pur­sue dif­fer­ent lines of work and em­ploy­ers need­ing to fill STEM-re­lated jobs are already re­port­ing dif­fi­culty find­ing work­ers. How can we pos­sibly be ex­pec­ted to meet the de­mand for STEM work­ers go­ing for­ward?

As a na­tion we can and must do more. Poli­cy­makers must help cre­ate op­por­tun­it­ies for STEM edu­ca­tion, through fund­ing meas­ures such as the Amer­ica Com­petes Act. The law, first passed in 2007 and reau­thor­ized in 2010, in­ves­ted in in­nov­a­tion and STEM edu­ca­tion, mak­ing Amer­ica more com­pet­it­ive. The coun­try also needs mod­ern­ized im­mig­ra­tion policies, in­clud­ing the abil­ity to “staple” a green card to the dip­lo­mas of for­eign-born stu­dents gradu­at­ing from U.S. uni­versit­ies with ad­vanced STEM de­grees. And private in­dustry cer­tainly must con­trib­ute.

At Cog­niz­ant, we be­lieve deeply in un­leash­ing a de­sire to learn the ne­ces­sary skills to thrive in the rap­idly chan­ging glob­al eco­nomy. That be­lief is at the heart of our “Mak­ing the Fu­ture” edu­ca­tion ini­ti­at­ive, in which Cog­niz­ant has dis­trib­uted more than $5 mil­lion to non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tions across the coun­try sup­port­ing in-school, after-school, and sum­mer pro­grams for chil­dren. Cog­niz­ant re­cently awar­ded 33 new grants to non­profits aim­ing to in­spire the next gen­er­a­tion of Amer­ica’s tech­no­logy lead­ers and en­tre­pren­eurs. The grants will en­able stu­dents — par­tic­u­larly un­der­served minor­it­ies and girls — in 22 states to re­ceive more than 300,000 hours of high-qual­ity STEM edu­ca­tion across a di­verse range of top­ics, in­clud­ing elec­tron­ics, ro­bot­ics, com­puter pro­gram­ming, di­git­al fab­ric­a­tion, 3D print­ing, and wear­able tech­no­logy.

Our STEM edu­ca­tion ef­forts, in­clud­ing our re­cent grant awards and the an­nounce­ment of a $150,000, three-year ini­ti­at­ive at Texas A&M Uni­versity, are some­what self-serving in one re­gard. At the be­gin­ning of this year, Cog­niz­ant also an­nounced plans to hire 10,000 U.S. work­ers over the next three years. We’d love to hire the best and bright­est Amer­ica has to of­fer.

Gor­don Coburn is the pres­id­ent of Cog­niz­ant, a lead­ing pro­vider of in­form­a­tion tech­no­logy, con­sult­ing, and busi­ness-pro­cess ser­vices, ded­ic­ated to help­ing the world’s lead­ing com­pan­ies build stronger busi­nesses. Cog­niz­ant is headquartered in Tea­neck, N.J.


The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force and health. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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