The available jobs aren't the problem. It's the qualifications to do those jobs. There is also, depending on how you count it and finagle the numbers, somewhere between 10% and 15% unemployment. Why can't we match those unemployed folks with the open jobs, and voilà, no open jobs, no unemployment? That's not going to happen any time soon. The vast majority of unemployed individuals in North America simply don't have the skills we need to work in the process automation field.
Because you're reading this, you probably aren't one of those unskilled unemployed. That's good, provided you recognize that 30 years ago, there were many more jobs open in manufacturing for lesser-skilled people than there are now. Thirty years hence, or even 10 years from now, the skills required to do the job you have will change, and become greater than the skills that you have right now.
That, too, is why the STEM education crisis looks new. It really isn't. This has been going on for almost three generations now—children don't want to do science, technology, engineering or math for reasons ranging from "it's too hard" to "manufacturing is dirty." But there were always menial jobs to absorb the children who couldn't cut it in the education system.
Missa Dixon (www.missadixon.com), a writer and STEM educator, says that it took us 60 years to get into this mess, and it will probably take that long to get out of it. At least, she says, that's about how long it took Finland to develop the very high- quality education system it has now. "In Finland," she says, "they proved that year-round school, with very small class sizes and physical activity during the school day actually works, and they've produced one of the technically highest performing workforces in the world.
"We are going to have to recognize that we may have lost a lot of the last two generations of our population and pay the karma for it. We decided to economize on education, and we put the money into social programs and prisons. But if we want to fix the education system so that we have all the STEM workers we need, and we will need, we have to do some things that will cost money, and some that will be socially difficult."
First and foremost, national standards of behavior in the classroom must be developed and adhered to. Support and encouragement must be given to parents and the community at large, as well as teachers. Teachers can't babysit, do social engineering and teach too.
"Follow the Finnish model of education," Dixon says, "and do what the research says works. Small schools, small classes, direct and varied instruction, using a standardized national pre-K through 12th grade curriculum. Once you have the culture back to backing up educational institutions, you train the teachers. Use a national standardized teacher training, with at least one year of in-class shadowing of an experienced teacher.
"This can't happen overnight, and a lot of these changes will hurt. But they are necessary," Dixon says. "And we have to stop expecting teachers to be edutainers. We can't do edutainment and expect kids to actually learn something."
Companies may have to shell out big money both for retraining workers and contributing to the cost of implementing the Finnish model. And, just in case you think we can skate without doing this, China and India are graduating an order of magnitude more STEM workers than we are.