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Part I: Tug of war: Competition for the best STEM minds

Teaching sounds like a plush job. Thirteen weeks of paid vacation annually. A pension equal to 80% of your salary after 25 years of service, few meetings and a classroom of your own. If the profession is so cushy, why do more than 30% of teachers leave within five years, and why do so many qualified college grads pursue other careers? If we do not encourage at least some of our best and brightest to enter teaching, then we undermine the foundation of success that has led to the quality of life we have come to enjoy and expect. The challenge to find and keep qualified science, technology, engineering and mathematics educators is compounded by competition from industry.

During the next decade, undergraduate institutions will face the dual challenge of conferring degrees in STEM areas and STEM education. What are the projected needs of the STEM industry and for teachers of science and mathematics, and will institutions be able to meet the demand of both fields?

STEM industry projections

Studies show that each year, the industry offers 277,000 jobs to STEM professionals at all levels of education (high school through professional certificate). Fortunately for employers and employees, U.S. institutions confer 271,000 bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields annually. This suggests that many job seekers will find work in STEM professions. Of course, the devil is in the details. For example, in engineering, the need for chemical engineers will decrease 2% by 2018, whereas the need for bioengineers will increase 72%.

The STEM industry faces challenges from business for STEM-trained professionals. Many individuals with degrees and experience in STEM opt to work in what Carnevale et. al. call “managerial and professional” positions. These roles require similar cognitive skills but might provide opportunities to employ other, noncognitive abilities and interests not utilized in STEM professions. Additionally, in the long term, salaries as managers and professionals increase more than for STEM professionals.

K-12 STEM education projections

In their paper “The Mathematics and Science Teacher Shortage: Fact and Myth,” Richard Ingersoll and David Perda persuasively argue that there is no shortage of teachers to meet the needs of an impending wave of retirement. Rather, they explain that the real loss of teaching talent for K-12 science and mathematics comes from those leaving the field in their prime to pursue other opportunities. According to their calculations based on data for academic year 1999-2000:

“The supply of new teachers from the pipeline and the reserve pool is barely sufficient, with just over one new mathematics or science teacher for each mathematics or science teacher who leaves teaching.”

The supply, what Ingersoll and Perda call the “pipeline and reserve pool,” comprises all individuals available to teach in 1999-2000, including those who graduated from traditional programs in education, received a degree but delayed teaching any number of years, participated in emergency or other teacher certification or returned to teaching after a hiatus.

Teacher shortages occur for myriad reasons and affect schools and districts differently. Rural and urban school districts face the greatest challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers. Ingersoll and Perda report that 46% of science and 51% of math teacher turnover at the end of 1999-2000 came from the movement of teachers between jobs. Many teachers move from one school or district to another seeking improved working conditions or better pay. As a result, many of the least experienced teachers find work in the most challenging environments, resulting in burnout, frustration and attrition.

Math and science teachers leave the profession at an alarming rate. By the end of 1999-2000, 54% of science and 49% of math teachers had left teaching. However, retirement accounted for only 11% of those leaving math and science teaching. Why do most teachers leave the profession in their prime? Those asked cited their top five concerns, in descending order.

  1. Inadequate time to plan and prepare.
  2. Lack of faculty influence and autonomy.
  3. Class sizes are too large.
  4. Insufficient computers and technology.
  5. Poor salary or benefits.

Clearly we need to improve conditions and compensation if we expect to hire and retain teachers.

We will continue this discussion Wednesday in Part II of this series on competition for the best STEM minds.

Doug Haller is the principal of Haller STEM Education Consulting. Haller is an education consultant specializing in strategic planning and market analysis to drive design, development and sales of niche education products for clients in the for-profit, nonprofit, and education and public outreach fields. His creative approach is based on years of practical experience as an educator, instructional designer and education consultant. Check out his blog, STEM Education: Inspire, Engage, Educate.