Bridging the Gap Between Industry and Academia: Science for a New Generation

Are U.S. schools doing enough to meet the demands of the country's labor market? That question rears its head time and again, leading some to call for an overhaul of higher education that focuses solely on job preparation. However, in a piece for ''The Chronicle of Higher Education,'' a few researchers have spun that question around - perhaps it's not schools that are letting the workforce down, but the other way around.

STEM education vocational education workforce preparation

The Other Side

Every so often, educational experts look at the nation's workforce and declare that colleges around the country aren't aptly preparing students. Recently, the National Governor's Association made such a proclamation, arguing that schools should abandon their liberal arts curricula in favor of teaching only those skills specifically required by employers. Policy critics Hal Salzman and B. Lindsay Lowell, however, took to The Chronicle to argue that pundits have it backwards.

In particular, Salzman and Lowell are responding to the 2010 report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited, which purports to be a 'wake-up call' for a stagnant U.S. labor market that, as the subtitle's hurricane metaphor puts it, is 'rapidly approaching category five.' Salzman and Lowell don't see things quite as dramatically as the authors of that report do. According to a long-term study they conducted, three decades of Department of Education data doesn't show any significant drop in the number of students engaged in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) learning, typically thought of as the best job preparation. It does show, however, that only around half those students ended up in jobs actually situated in engineering or science fields.

What does that mean? Salzman and Lowell extrapolate that possibly it's U.S. industry that isn't ready to accept degreed students, even when they get the appropriate job-centric education. They cite employers who express dissatisfaction with recent graduates' skills in teamwork, business and social science. Companies, they say, also tend to look for entry-level workers who've already acquired significant technological skills along with that broader social education. No doubt many jobseekers can relate to the difficulty of seeing entry-level positions filled by those who are presumably overqualified for them.

What Can Industry Do?

The point is, it's difficult for schools to walk the line between broad education and in-depth technological training, especially when employers may not be willing to supplement that training themselves, nor to collaborate with schools in jointly structuring a curriculum most beneficial to our STEM graduates. And why shouldn't they? As much pressure as schools feel to turn out apt workers, industry should feel a roughly equal pressure to staff themselves with quality employees. Unfortunately, sometimes companies look to hastily augment their workforce by importing people from overseas on temporary visas; Salzman and Lowell argue that's a shortsighted move that only hurts our nation's prospective workforce and ends up feeding the very problem reports like Gathering Storm seek to prevent.

For Salzman and Lowell, in the end, instead of continually harping on education, policy-makers might look at ways to improve the job market for current graduates, for instance by further incentivizing research and development from firms and encouraging entrepreneurship in the STEM disciplines. The business and academic worlds could also work a little more closely together, allowing schools to better prepare their graduates for specific employers' needs. In a way, this isn't too different a concept from a school-sponsored summer internship, which allows students to both gain work-specific knowledge and get a foot in the door with at least one employer. More such close collaboration, which requires just a little more effort from schools but significantly more from industry, seems like exactly what Salzman and Lowell call for.

Salzman and Lowell also advocate K-12 education reform. Consider the recently proposed overhaul for elementary science education.

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