Why STEM matters: Future jobs and livelihoods depend on it

by John Burgess (johnny.burgess@mainstream-tech.com) 494 views 

Trends with robotics and AI, coupled with the socio-political milieu are all leading to a future where most available “good” jobs will be STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs. I don’t think people know how quickly that future is bearing down on us. A 2017 McKinsey report estimates that by 2030 as many as 73 million jobs in the US could be replaced by automation. Globally, the estimate is between 400-800 million jobs.

We’re not going to stop that from happening and we’re not doing anything to slow it down. The shift to automation is being driven by self-preservation as business struggles with cost increases beyond their control such as rising health costs and mandated minimum wage requirements. Businesses are forced to pursue these options to remain competitive.

There are some bright spots in all of this, however. Where classic liberal education taught us critical thinking and creativity, those skills have moved into STEM education where the focus is on analyzing problems and using science and technology tools to design solutions to those problems. And that is going to be the last area where computers cannot replace us: using our understanding of the physical world to craft solutions, using tools provided by a STEM education; STEM becomes a way for us to be competitive on an individual basis.

Encouragingly, there are many public and private initiatives supporting STEM education. Here are some leading examples of what I call “the STEM pipeline”:

The Museum of Discovery and the Discovery Network whose mission is to spark and fuel a passion for STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math) in children.

Arkansas Women’s Foundation, whose Girls of Promise program encourages girls and young women to pursue STEM education and careers.

Governor Hutchinson’s computer science education initiative that ensures every public-school student in Arkansas is exposed to computer science, and which is now expanding down into middle school.

Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub. Its educational and outreach programs introduce 21st century technology tools and center around the “maker” community where the focus is more about physical objects. They also introduce entrepreneurism to develop skills for evaluating and determining the path for a viable business.

LRSD EXCEL Technology Program. A high school level experiential learning program that allows students to explore technology-related fields.

Arkansas AIMS (Advanced Initiative for Math & Science) provides teacher education and a content library for Advanced Placement (AP) students.

Donaghey College of Engineering and Information Technology (“EIT”) at UA Little Rock has consolidated STEM degrees under one roof, collaborating with the business community to provide the most relevant work-force ready STEM graduates.

The Venture Center provides programming and resources to support entrepreneurial and startup activities.

The Little Rock Technology Park provides workspace and support for young technology companies through services and a flexible, nurturing startup environment.

Today, we live in a paradox where our educational system doesn’t provide enough STEM-capable workers to fill even currently available jobs while citizens lacking STEM skills have difficulty finding gainful employment. As we debate where to focus our public support and how to provide for a robust future for our children and grandchildren, an emphasis on STEM education and career training will provide the rising tide which will lift all boats.

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Editor’s note: John Burgess is President and co-founder of Mainstream Technologies, Inc. in Little Rock. He serves on the boards of the Museum of Discovery, AR AIMS and the Little Rock Tech Park and the advisory councils for the LRSD Excel program and EIT. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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