Overall, STEM employment in the United States has risen steadily in the past 15 years, according to the U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index. Current projections anticipate that the STEM economy will grow by 17 percent through 2018, with expected job vacancies totaling 2.4 million.
However, America’s young adults face the unique challenge of competing for 21st century jobs with an influx of international students and workers, while also facing a combination of significant cost barriers to university education and lack of access to training that adequately prepares them for work. Addressing this disconnect is critical for the next generation of workers.
The good news is that a lot of leading edge companies and organizations are making efforts to encourage middle school students and underrepresented groups in STEM careers to consider opportunities in STEM fields, and to begin preparing early by taking higher level math and science classes. There is great variety in the field and you can start by pursuing “middle skills” occupations that are interesting and accessible, and the training can be completed in two years or less.
Though high-level STEM jobs requiring advanced degrees dominate most discussions about worker training, middle-skill STEM jobs that require associate’s degrees or occupational certifications are in the highest demand. The term “middle-skill” refers not to the level of talent but to the credential, which is more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree. These technical jobs are essential to our nation’s economic growth and provide promising career opportunities.
Workers with sub-baccalaureate credentials are qualified for half of all STEM jobs. Middle-skill STEM jobs pay well at the entry-level – from $20 to $27 per hour, increasing over time with experience – and these jobs’ annual salaries average more than $50,000, according to the Brookings Institution. Thus, middle-skill STEM jobs represent an unprecedented opportunity for historically underserved students who disproportionately enroll at community colleges.
Sectors that offer the best chances for middle-skill STEM careers include energy, manufacturing, technology, design and construction, health care and bioscience. There are approximately 30,000 unfilled middle-skill jobs in the health care sector alone, which is expected to grow by 14 percent over the next five years. Those jobs – such as registered nurses, paramedics, lab technicians, medical records technicians, surgical technicians, radiology specialists and MRI technologists – usually pay around $25 an hour.
Another 16,000 jobs are in computer information technology, including positions such as web developers, computer support specialists, computer network specialists, and information security analysts – along with 8,000 jobs in the manufacturing industry, such as engineering technicians and mechanical maintenance engineers. These sectors are expected to grow by 15 percent over the next five years. More than 12,000 jobs fall in the energy sector, with wages averaging $21 per hour to $28 per hour, the highest wage levels of the six sectors.
In construction and design, advances in technology, “building information modeling” and retrofitting are expected to drive change in the industry over the next decade, requiring tools such as construction-related software and mobile computing skills. But employers are concerned that few workers are skilled in using the technology.
Therefore internships, externships, and apprenticeships are highly recommended and your willingness to be diligent, problem solve, and collaborate with others is essential. Researchers also recommended programs that give workers experience, whether simulated or through internships or on-the job training. “Experience really plays a big role in middle skills,” economist Chris Seals told the Baltimore Sun, “and work experience can compensate for not having a bachelor’s degree.”
Finally, it should be noted that there is the ability to move and grow along a career path to a four-year degree or a professional degree if you desire to go further. You could start out as a technician with a two-year degree, earn a decent living, and then decide to pursue additional education if you would like to eventually become a physician, computer programmer, or engineer. Investigate what types of careers match your strengths, interests, and personality, and make a commitment to excel in whatever you choose to do.
Here is an infographic showcasing middle-skill STEM careers, courtesy of Siemens: