Last month, we celebrated New Jersey’s commitment to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in honor of NJ STEM Month. Throughout the state, students, schools, parents, businesses, employees, and program providers promoted STEM activities and showcased their work.
There is certainly much to be celebrated. According to U.S. News and World Report, New Jersey is home to 21 of the top 251 STEM high schools nationwide. But to truly maximize our potential and reach more students, as well as meet the workforce needs of the future, we must do even more to educate our children in STEM disciplines. This requires thoughtful change management and collaboration among our state leaders. It is essential that we double down on STEM and cement it as a priority — not only for the present, but also for the future.
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 65 percent of today’s grade-school students will end up in jobs that do not yet exist. We must tackle challenges in teaching, access, equity, and resources to prepare our students for the careers we have yet to imagine and to ensure all students have the opportunity to contribute to our economy.
STEM is already essential
Make no mistake, STEM careers already play an integral role in the continued growth and stability of our national and state economies. In fact, the National Science Foundation found that scientific innovation accounted for approximately half of all economic growth in the United States over the past 50 years. As our economy continues to evolve, STEM careers will play an even more significant role. Nationally, careers in the STEM fields are expected to grow at almost twice the rate of other jobs in the marketplace. But this is not just a problem of the future. There are currently 3 million more STEM jobs than available trained professionals in our country. In New Jersey, there are 1.4 available STEM jobs for every unemployed person. This skills gap will only get worse if we are not intentional about addressing it.
New Jersey has to strengthen its economic-innovation engine to remain competitive. The growing STEM job marketplace needs talent for middle-skills jobs (for example, certifications beyond high school) and jobs that require a college degree. We need to better prepare many more of our New Jersey children for the well-paying jobs in STEM-related industries. These pathways will only be established through a robust commitment to strengthening our education system and improving education-to-employment pipelines.
Placing more emphasis on STEM education is essential to better prepare our children for the future and to support the next generation of innovators. This is the very innovation New Jersey desperately needs to support its pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and chemical industries, to name a few. We also have the opportunity to capture new sources of growth supported by technological innovations.
The truth is that New Jersey’s education pipeline is underserving girls and black and Latino students. In computer science, which is one of the fastest-growing job segments within the STEM world, the inequity is apparent. In 2015, only 15 percent of the computer science college graduates in New Jersey were female. In addition, Latino students and Black students made up only 9 percent and 3 percent, respectively, of high school students taking the AP computer science exam in 2016. To help address this, Gov. Phil Murphy’s budget put forward a $2 million grant program to help high schools expand computer science courses, including professional development for teachers. Paired with a loan-forgiveness program for STEM graduates who remain in New Jersey, this budget encourages our state’s brightest students to contribute to our STEM economy.
There is still much more to be done. A recently released report by JerseyCAN shines a light on many pockets of innovation and inspiring leaders in STEM education, but the need to scale this work to reach more students is evident. Based on our research, which included conversations with more than 70 experts and organizations, we have identified seven actionable recommendations. We believe they have the ability to both strengthen our innovation economy and advance equity and excellence in STEM education:
Taken together, these recommendations can reestablish New Jersey as a leader in innovation. Perhaps more importantly, they will help create greater opportunities for students who are not currently getting them, thereby tapping into their tremendous potential. This will benefit not only individual students, but also boost the economic wellbeing of our state in the long run.