Is Mo’ Money the Solution to the STEM Job Shortage?

Governor Ralph Northam. Photo credit: Daily Progress

Speaking at the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce yesterday, Governor Ralph Northam enumerated the main challenges he sees for Virginia’s business environment: diversifying regional economies, creating more opportunity in rural communities, providing dedicated funding for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and reforming state taxes and regulatory structures. Reports the Daily Progress:

The Democratic governor tied most of these problems to two solutions — well-funded schools at all levels and Medicaid expansion, arguing the federal Medicaid funding would allow more state money to be spent in other areas.

“We need to diversify our economy by understanding what the jobs of the 21st century are,” Northam said, citing biotechnology, data collection and data analysis.

“We do that through having excellent colleges and universities that are affordable to all Virginians, but also through supporting and marketing community colleges,” he said. “There are thousands of good, high-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year education.”

Medicaid expansion might pay for itself, but let’s just say I’m skeptical that it will actually save the state money. How many other states that have enacted Medicaid expansion make the claim that they have freed up spending for other priorities? But that’s a side issue.

Of greater interest is Northam’s observation that there are “thousands of good high-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year education.” He is absolutely right about that. He seems to be suggesting — although it’s not entirely clear — that Virginia needs to spend more money to help ameliorate the problem.

As Bacon’s Rebellion readers know, I tend to be skeptical that waving the magic money wand fixes many problems. I’d like to see an analysis of why Virginia’s educational/workforce training system has been unable to meet the demand for STEM jobs.

It is widely known, for example, that there are widespread job shortages in the IT sector. One plausible explanation is limited teaching capacity — there just aren’t enough college and university courses in which to enroll, and existing classes are so full to the brim that would-be IT practitioners are being turned away. Is that, in fact, so?

If there is a capacity shortage, why is there a shortage? Are colleges, universities and even for-profit career schools too dim-witted to see the business opportunity and expand the course offerings? Or, alternatively, do they see the opportunities but are having trouble recruiting instructors to staff the courses?

What if the supply of students is the problem? It is widely acknowledged that STEM programs have high drop-out rates because many American students can’t handle the work. What if the problem is that high schools are not preparing students for college-level STEM work? What if American students don’t have the self-discipline to perform demanding work with right-and-wrong answers?

Finally, what kind of workforce credentials are needed to fill these STEM jobs? Do employers crave workers with certifications that can be obtained at community colleges or for-profit career schools? Or do they need employees with B.A.-, M.A.-, or Ph.D.-level degrees obtainable only through advanced programs? Presumably, both are needed. But what is the proper mix? If more funding is the answer, what is the proper distribution between community colleges and four-year institutions?

I’ve not seen any of this analysis. And I have no confidence that we truly understand the nature of the problem or how best to invest public dollars. Virginia doesn’t have the luxury of throwing dollars at problems we don’t understand. We need to act upon hard evidence, not conjecture.

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7 responses to “Is Mo’ Money the Solution to the STEM Job Shortage?”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    While Virginia has long provided need-based scholarship assistance for those seeking college degrees, it only recently started a similar fund for students seeking credentials for non-degree career programs. This was a highly positive development and it is one area where more money needs to be considered if demand continues to grow.

    I think the workforce programs and the advisory boards at the various community colleges do have handle on what employers want and what people need to do to qualify for the jobs. I do not think there is any capacity shortage. Your observation that part of the problem is poor high school preparation is valid, as is your observation that the problem with STEM is those subjects are – in word – hard.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      ” …the problem with STEM is those subjects are – in word – hard.”

      True. But colleges and universities make it harder than it needs to be. Why should you have to take physics to get a computer science degree? Some Virginia universities are reputed to pummel potential STEM degree candidates with exceptionally hard courses just to thin the herd. Back in the day the 5 hour calculus class at Virginia Tech was known as the great ender of engineering degrees. I’ve spent 38 years in the technology industry – most of those years as a Chief Technology Officer – and I’ve never ever had to use a differential equation. I am sure there is advanced math buried in some of the analytical software packages I use but insisting that every computer science degree candidate be a full blown mathematician seems counter-productive to me.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        “Why should you have to take physics to get a computer science degree? Some Virginia universities are reputed to pummel potential STEM degree candidates with exceptionally hard courses just to thin the herd.”

        In many cases, that should be deemed education malpractice, tantamount to a criminal offense. Typically, it takes substantially better that an 120 IQ to do good work in traditional undergraduate physics courses in a highly selective school, whereas a 120 IQ is ample for good work in most other highly selective traditional Arts and Science undergraduate courses. (“Traditional” here is defined “real college level courses” without grade inflation.”)

        But there is ABSOLUTELY no excuse to impose higher standards or unnecessary skill requirements than necessary for a student to succeed in a particular field. To do so is intellectual snobbery of the most pernicious sort. It murders students careers. It’s malevolence of the worse kind. It gratuitously thwarts students ability to do the best work of which they are capable, depriving them, their family, and their community and society of the benefit of what could otherwise be their life’s highly productive work. Compounding the crime is the fact students are paying for the harm done to them. And that harm violates an sacred trust all teachers have to do no harm to their students.

        Here is another way of thinking about this. Students who score within the 90th percentage (upper 10%) on their SATs are considered academically gifted. 90% will attend college. 80% of these will or are able to reliably obtain a traditional, real college without grade inflation, BA degree. (those who drop out will do so for reasons other than lack of academic ability.) Half of these academically gifted students will go on to graduate work.

        In contrast, kids who score between the 80th and 89th percentile on SATs will find it much harder to obtain a traditional real college level without grade inflation BA degree. They have the cognitive ability to master such academic work, but only with far more effort than their gifted peers. Hence many more of these students will invariably drop out of active learning of real college level work for lack of interest or exceedingly strong motivation, so they don’t learn, a fact too often masked by grade inflation. These are bright kids, who are forced to waste their time trying to master what they need not master to succeed in life doing very well what they enjoy and are by their own talents and gifts are meant to do really well. So, for example, instead of getting their rocks off on theoretical astrophysics, or the upper realms of Dante and medieval theology (subject they quite naturally have no interest in), they succeed in building and running businesses, or in marketing, or coaching, or project managing or many other highly competitive and meaningful careers that are not critically dependent on high academic gifts required in traditional medicine, law, physics, high mathematics, etc.

        And students who score below the 80% on their SATS are ever more prone to be abused by an academic system that tells them they are receiving real Baccalaureate degrees. They are not, if only because they have no interest in the subject matter, and cannot be expected to have interest in the subject matter. Hence they learn nothing, or next to it. Either that, or they are receiving vocational and tech career degrees disguised as Baccalaureates. And along the way they are often taking many courses they could not care less about, and/or do not need and/or cannot benefit from, while at the same time they are missing many courses and much training they could greatly benefit from. Or they are taking courses that they should have mastered in high school, or in fact did master there, but are caught in classes of peers in college who need the remedial work to even begin college work.

        Stated another way. Approximately one third (the lower third academically) of our population will stop learning academically at the 8th grade level. Those who succeed at that 8th grade level will at best read, write, and compute at a rudimentary level. Beyond the 8th grade, how are these kids now being schooled? Or do we abandon them? And, in how many ways, do we abandon and abuse them, sitting there getting no learning but feeling shamed?

        As to the second third (from say the 33th percentile to 66 percentile), how many of this cohort will stop learning academically before they complete the 12th grade level? And if so, will never really receive a traditional high school education? Or anything close to a high school education? I suggest likely far more kids than we are willing to admit. Yet some will go to college.

        Then of course well have the rest. These are the kids that take SATs. Most of these kids will be in the top half of their high school class. The truth is that only the top 10% of these will in reliable numbers succeed in doing college level work successfully and beneficially, save for those few in the next ten percent tier who work very hard to succeed. And all the rest will be wasting their time, unable to learn so uninterested in the work or angry or shamed about it, or learning what they should have learned in high school. And the great majority of these kids will know they are not learning, so will stop trying to learn, and simply have fun instead, if only by taking junk courses designed to entertain term, and getting grades they know they did not earn.

        Meanwhile, as Don has pointed out. Some other kids will be thwarted in their success by professors who put unnecessary and unfair obstacles in their way by reason of intellectual snobbery, insecurity or plain malevolence.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’d not let the word “STEM” dissuade anyone from recognizing that the economy is diverse AND in need of trained workers and whether its a higher ed degree or a 2 year or occupational certificate – the more accessible education is – the more folks we have with jobs and not needing entitlements.

    The thing about MedicAid – is that the influx of money is no different than DOD spending more in NoVa or the VA spending more in Richmond or Fed Highway spending more in Virginia on transportation. Basically that money means more jobs and in the expansion case – it freeing up other money in the State budget to go to education.

    If DOD said they wanted to spend billions more dollars in Virginia – would we really turn it down because we feared it was “deficit” money?

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      I’m not so sure the General Assembly would be willing to approve a state matching share of the for a new Virginia Class submarine or Ford Class carrier :). I suspect the answer there would also be no.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    at a 90% Fed share?

    we do that for a LOT of Federal grants at a lot more than a 10% share.

    Regular MedicAid is 50% by the way and I don’t hear the GA saying they don’t like those terms!

    and Highway money from the Feds is similar…

    The COPs grants that fund law enforcement are this way.

    Virginia PAYS millions in dollars for incentives for big companies to move to Virginia… for the jobs…

    this is downright silly… willfully so.

  4. STEM ed is hot button for me.

    Gov. Northam’s comments strike me as typical liberal: the first step if for the progressives to define what are the politically correct STEM jobs we want to promote.

    Northam puts this as “…the jobs of the 21st century are,” Northam said, citing biotechnology, data collection and data analysis.”

    Great …at least we know who the good guys are now.

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