I just returned from a meeting of the Greater Houston Partnership (GHP) Energy Collaborative Workforce Committee meeting, the last meeting of this particular committee, at least as originally conceived and constructed. The first of these meetings was held nearly a decade ago with the goal of bringing a focus on successful STEM educational strategies to industry and policy discussions. I left the first meeting with a feeling of hope that industry and policy experts would see STEM education as a valuable component of future workforce development. I left this latest meeting with a sense of disgust. Why?
I'm still processing my feelings, but I think it boils down to three reasons: 1) The GHP is dissolving the energy collaborative and fracturing the workforce committee into existing and new initiatives. This is going to splinter the connections between education, workforce needs, and policy that were central to the original vision of the committee's mission and greatly dilute the impact that educational strategy discussions will have on policy and workforce discussions. 2) There seems to be a significant regression in the GHP's vision for workforce development that isolates education, particularly any effort below 8th grade. This regression falls prey to the traditional canard that the failures of education can be fixed after the damage has already been done. 3) This reorganization threatens to reverse or undo much of the painstakingly slow progress that the original vision of the committee has managed to accomplish.
The genesis of my disgust really lies in reason #2, so I will expand on that point. It boils down to a logical fallacy that is common to government and industry decisions, that immediate needs must be solved immediately. There is an immediate need for more skilled workers in most STEM fields. The talent pool that must fill these positions must come from high school and undergraduate populations. Industry does not have time to wait for younger students to matriculate into the talent pool. Therefore, efforts must be made to intervene at the high school and college level. The fallacy arrives when one examines this strategy for actual effectiveness and particularly
It is simplistic to view the talent pool as simply the number of students in high school and college. There must be a realistic expectation that any effort to attract talent into STEM fields or educational interventions will be successful. This pre-supposes that there are carrots and or sticks to motivate sufficient numbers of students or job-seekers into targeted programs. The carrots are existing job opportunities, expanding career opportunities, future salaries, and actual stipends for participation. The stick is unemployment and more limited job prospects for graduates in non-STEM fields. Seems like an equation that should be effective, but there is a flaw. As a STEM educator, I can attest to the difficulties with the assumption that these motivators will encourage individuals to pursue STEM careers or even consider transitional career goals to include STEM opportunities. Few individuals in each of the target populations, 8th graders, high school students, or college students, see STEM as a realistic option unless they are already in the “pipeline”. Most, and I mean a vast majority, of students have decided by the 5th grade whether they feel competent in math or science, or whether they even like science or math. And, this is a very strongly held opinion that precludes them from considering themselves as candidates for math or science careers. This fear of STEM cannot be overcome with future motivations.
A lot of money and effort is spent by industry and government to rehabilitate this talent pool to meet the immediate workforce needs, but the inevitable inefficiency of these efforts leads to frustration and disillusionment. There may be enough impact to encourage further investment, but there is little to no actual progress towards increasing the numbers of STEM graduates and/or building a skilled STEM workforce. The wheels keep spinning, faster and faster, and the hole keeps getting deeper and deeper.
There is simply no real solution other than fixing the problem at its source and being patient with the results. Just like fad diets and the drug war, the solution comes from a sustained long-term effort to address the causes of the problem rather than a quick strike attack at the symptomatic outcomes of the obesity/disease process. Obviously, drug treatment for the addicted, calorie restrictions for the obese, and job training programs for an unprepared workforce are necessary, but these are not solutions.
I would argue that the majority of effort should be made toward the solution, while bandages are applied to the immediate problem, rather than the other way around. This is a message meant for industry, and government agencies that focus on workforce development. More support is needed for teacher professional development and STEM programs that reach kids early to sustain their interest and confidence in STEM areas. Get more of these kids through the 5th grade bottleneck and the effective talent pool available to immediate workforce development interventions will grow.
I also have one additional concern. The GHP Energy Collaborative Workforce Committee has made progress towards its original vision, thanks to its leadership and the efforts of its partner organizations. The numbers of participants in programs supported by this committee shows this progress, but the pay-off for the STEM workforce may still be years ahead. I am concerned that the fruits of this progress will become confused with less effective efforts if there is more focus on immediate data rather than on trends in the data tied to causal factors. When this cohort reaches the workforce, credit may be given to “rehabilitation” efforts rather than to the success of efforts made years earlier. This happens a lot, just ask Malcolm Gladwell, and it holds back progress because true causal factors aren’t recognized or given sufficient credit. This inability of many of society’s leaders, and the general population as a whole, to identify causation and analyze data to predict future outcomes is the most significant failure of our current education system, and the reason that STEM education is crucial for all students.
But that is the topic of a different diatribe, so I’ll use this as an excuse to stop here and leave that discussion for a future post.