Apprenticeship Can Help Us Build Our STEM Workforce

Corning, the lead innovator in materials science, is using apprenticeship to prepare young people for occupations that require STEM skills. Their Technology Talent Pipeline is a two-year course of scientific and engineering study in partnership with Corning Community College. The program is also a job. Apprentices spend at least one day a week working in Corning labs learning to operate experimental equipment and interpret data. Participants receive a full scholarship and a full-time salary throughout the two years and a degree upon completion. One hundred percent of Pipeline apprentices have transitioned to technician positions at Corning and remain at the company as full-time workers. The program has also been good for Corning’s diversity. Fifty eight percent of Pipeline graduates are underrepresented minorities and women.

STEM skills are more important than ever – to our economy and for individual students and businesses. But we’re still not preparing enough STEM workers. According to a recent report by ACT, only 20% of students in the 2016 ACT-tested high school graduating class were ready for first-year STEM college courses. Thirty eight percent of students who start with a STEM major do not graduate with one. For every two students graduating with a U.S. STEM degree, only one is employed in STEM. It takes employers longer to fill job openings for STEM positions than openings in other fields.

The Technology Talent Pipeline is a tremendous win for Corning and for their apprentices. Why aren’t more people ready to work in today’s STEM jobs? One reason why we don’t have more STEM-ready workers could be because we’re not delivering STEM education in the right way.

Apprenticeship can help us get more people ready for STEM careers starting with high school students. Apprenticeship is a form of paid experiential learning where students – called apprentices – use knowledge and concepts to solve to real-world problems or situations. Instruction takes place in the classroom and also at a job. In the case of STEM, for example, an apprentice would learn science, technology, engineering, and math theories in a school setting. The apprentice would apply those academic concepts in an entry-level job until they become skills proficient. A mentor would work on-the-job alongside the apprentice, helping them connect the worlds of school and work. The entire time the apprentice would earn money for their work and receive pay increases the more their technical and work aptitudes develop.

Why aren’t young people sticking with STEM? Researchers have identified a host of reasons such as a shortage of knowledgeable teachers who can inspire students, a lack of role models who can make STEM look attractive, and a lack of excitement about STEM jobs. But one explanation that rises to the top of most lists is that STEM requires a strong foundation in math, a subject that is notorious for being difficult to master. The Department of Education notes that 16 percent of American high school seniors are not proficient in mathematics or interested in a STEM career. However, this is not a new phenomenon. Many adults are also on team I-Hate-Math.

It takes tenacity to study STEM. Alexandra Ossola writes that, “Learning in general—and STEM in particular—requires repeated trial and error, and a student’s lack of confidence can sometimes stand in her own way.” For many young people a STEM occupation feels unreachable.

Apprenticeship can boost students’ confidence while building competence. Research shows that experiential learning models, such as apprenticeship, can help young people:

  • Learn faster and remember more. Hands-on practice strengthens brain functions associated with improved learning and memory.
  • Appreciate their mistakes. Mistakes are expected in hands-on learning environments. When students understand that missteps are valuable, they’re less fearful of making them.
  • Feel good about their abilities. When students see the results of what their own hands produce, they grow in confidence. Students are able to draw on this self-assurance in difficult moments of learning.
  • Select majors and professions that they will stick with. Research shows that people tend to be more committed to their college major and profession when it matches their learning style.

As we encourage more use of apprenticeship to prepare young people for occupations that require STEM skills, we’ll need to be mindful that STEM and apprenticeship don’t usually go together. On one hand, our perceptions about apprenticeship are shaped by the building trades, which have the longest history with apprenticeship. In fiscal year 2015 roughly 50% of active apprentices participated in construction related training alone.  

On the other hand, our perceptions of STEM are associated with professional jobs - jobs with high educational requirements - such as engineer, computer scientist, and researcher. What we’re overlooking, according to Jonathan Rothwell, is half of all jobs that require STEM skills are in manufacturing, health care, or construction industries. These are industries that already have an apprenticeship footprint. And these STEM skills jobs, paying $53,000 on average, don’t all require a four-year college degree. Quicker access to a well-paying job in an in-demand field is a good thing.

The STEM skills deficiency in our country is problematic. Most high school students are graduating without the math aptitudes necessary to succeed in post-secondary STEM education. Employers are struggling to find STEM workers. Connecting STEM education and apprenticeship is one way to fill these STEM shortages and improve our nation’s economic vitality.

The need to strengthen and expand our STEM workforce is something Republicans and Democrats have long agreed on. President Obama grappled with these challenges during his tenure. He set goals to improve STEM teacher education, increase STEM funding, and use experiential learning to pique young people’s interest in STEM. We haven’t heard much about where STEM education fits into the Trump administration’s priorities, but rebuilding America’s infrastructure and expanding our manufacturing sector can’t happen without more STEM graduates. Providing more opportunities for young people to acquire STEM skills through apprenticeship and other work-based learning opportunities would be an important step in the right direction.

Author:

Nneka Jenkins Thompson was a senior manager in the Education Policy program at New America where she focused on a growing body of initiatives that reach across higher education, workforce development, and economic development for an integrated approach to policymaking.