The number of STEM jobs — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — is in a secular growth storm, having sped past the number of non-STEM jobs by three times since 2000. Students pursuing STEM education will be positioned to benefit from the wave of innovations in synthetic biology.
And experts say there might not be enough graduates in those fields to fill the jobs.
“Look around at how many times a day you touch a computer, tablet, phone … these industries are accelerating so much that these high school kids will have jobs that don’t even exist yet,” said Kenneth Hecht, the leader of the National STEM Honor Society, an membership program that engages students from kindergarten into their career in STEM project-based learning (NSTEM).
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STEM covers both high-tech and long-established professions. For example, STEM jobs in demand include those in cloud computing, informatics and other software developers that write code for computation. They also include occupations for actuaries, cartographers, critical care nurses and epidemiologists.
Jobs in the medical and healthcare fields have boomed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as populations age, but traditionally, computer technology, or tech, is the number one major that international students pursue within STEM, according to a study by the Institute of International Education. In synthetic biology, STEM refers to the synthesis of biology, genome sequencing, proteomics, machine learning and more – in fact, the emerging industry is itself redefined every few years as new technologies and discoveries (ie. CRISPR) unfold.
Jobs in computer and information technology are projected to grow 11% from 2019 to 2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) website, “much faster than the average for all occupations.”
These occupations are projected to add about 531,200 new jobs to the U.S. workforce by 2029. Jobs in cloud computing, big data, and information security will be in high demand, according to BLS.
COVID plus and minuses
Recent enrollment declines because of the COVID-19 pandemic have slowed the pipeline between graduates and jobs, as most international students rode out the pandemic in their home countries. But recent graduates who land STEM jobs show greater availability and higher salaries.
“A STEM education and a STEM career can change the trajectory of one family’s path and even others,” said Kenneth Hecht, leader of the National STEM Honor Society that engages students from kindergarten into their career in STEM project-based learning (NSTEM).
Nidhi Thaker, a Ph.D. student in the biochemistry and molecular biology department at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, also is optimistic about the promise of STEM opportunities.
“Applying and combining a biology background with technology that can be helpful in making a product, and by product, I mean, it could be a machine, it could be a drug, it could be any other thing, to help medicine itself and to help the field grow,” is what biotechnology means to Thaker.
Her experience working in the Boston area, one of America’s biotech hubs and close to several top U.S. universities like Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, has been largely positive.
“It’s not just work, work, work. They also incorporate, like, team-building exercises, going out and having parties and things like that,” Thaker noted. “It’s a very well rounded, cultural approach that they’re taking, in regard to giving all the benefits.”
Lack of people skills
One problem, though, is many graduates have a proficiency in tech skills but lack people skills, said Sahil Jain, senior enterprise architect at Adobe.
“This means they are good at coding. You can give them a digest code, they will do it very well. But they cannot speak to the senior leadership at the customer site.”
Jain explains that both soft and hard skills are necessary to do well in emerging technology jobs, yet students often excel at one or the other, not both.
“That means they are good at speaking, but when it comes to technicalities, the customer brings his architects on the call, ‘Oh, tell me how this will work? Can you give me some architectural aspects as well?’ … That is where the big gap is,” he explained.
In addition, Jain said the STEM job market is crowded with numerous evolving technologies.
“The industry is evolving a lot. It’s no longer only cloud computing based. There are many, many areas of blockchain,” a way to code to enhance the security of the information.
“We have machine learning, we have [artificial intelligence] …” said Jain, who has recently enrolled in Georgia Institute of Techology, a public university in Atlanta, to keep his skills up to date.
Filling needed roles
Even with initiatives to alert students to STEM opportunities, like NSTEM, there were an estimated 2.4 million positions unfilled in STEM fields in 2018, according to a study by Impact Science, a California teacher-founded initiative to engage young students with science.
“Being on the educational side, these numbers are well published and well recognized in the world, and the question is and has been, ‘What do you do about it?’” Hecht asked.
“If you look at the differences in ethnicities and gender it would be even worse,” which inspires one of NSTEM’s missions to help close equity divisions in STEM, he added.
An April 2021 study by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) found that “enrolling more international undergraduate students does not crowd out U.S. students at the average American university and leads to an increase in the number of bachelor’s degrees in STEM majors awarded to U.S. students.”
“Each additional 10 bachelor’s degrees—across all majors—awarded to international students by a college or university leads to an additional 15 bachelor’s degrees in STEM majors awarded to U.S. students,” the study found. The data suggests that U.S. students are more likely to major in STEM fields if they go to school with international students.
“In much of the U.S., STEM graduates are in short supply. Students who graduate with a STEM major typically earn more than other graduates, especially early in their careers,” according to the NFAP study.
“The finding here that the presence of international students actually increases the number of U.S. students graduating with a STEM major is another reason to encourage international students to come to the United States,” stated Madeline Zavodny, the study’s author.
“America’s future competitiveness depends on attracting and retaining talented international students,” according to companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter with other parties in a group letter to Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) in July 2020. ICE had announced it would revoke international student visas during the COVID-19 pandemic if those students were not in person to study on campus.