As I’ve become more seasoned in my role (fancy way of saying that I’m getting older), I’ve found an ability to dedicate time daily to reviewing think-pieces and op-eds flying around the digital space on all things education. Recently I’ve noted a number of authors keying in on the challenges with filling the STEM pipeline and possible solutions to address the growing need for skilled STEM laborers in our current and future workforce. Unless you’ve been asleep for 40 years or transported to the present via the mothership or lifeboat (#Timeless; Sundays @10:00p ET; NBC), you’re aware that we have an issue both domestically here in the US and globally as technology continues to disrupt and increase demands of a 21st century workforce. As I’ve offered before on at least one occasion, my opinion – we need to start by giving our students the bottom line up front; what’s in it for them? What’s the carrot on the end of the stick? What’s the bullseye on the horizon that they’re aiming at? Essentially – what’s the answer to their question: ‘why am I learning/studying this theory?’
In one of the pieces that I recently reviewed (Revitalizing the University-Industry-Government Partnership: Creating New Opportunities for 21st Century: Proceedings of a Workshop in Brief), participants make a case that alignment between postsecondary education (training), industry (hiring), and government (funding) will aid in solving the current deficiencies. The piece quotes Rep. Virginia Foxx, (R-NC), Chair of the House Education and Workforce Committee, on how postsecondary education is preparing the workforce of the 21st century: “Right now there are 6.1 million unfilled jobs in this country; these jobs are unfilled because too many Americans are unskilled, and we should have seen this coming.” The piece goes on to paraphrase comments: ‘Too many students are completing college with significant debt and no job prospects. Foxx noted that as a society, the United States needs to rethink its education system by refining the existing machinery and ending the pursuit of obsolete goals, to ensure that colleges and universities are preparing people for the changing world of work.’ (Note: Foxx goes on to provide her opinion that all students should not pursue baccalaureate degrees but rather some should enter trades and alternative career pathways. As I’m a huge believer in this philosophy, perhaps we’ll cover in a separate post) My take, the machinery doesn’t need to be refined, it needs to be completely remanufactured.
As I have mentioned before, my academic training is in biomedical and forensic science. I have deep ties in the forensic community and can/will offer a perspective that’s grounded by my own experiences. What is the purpose of a college degree? It signifies that the holder has met a level of proficiency within a given field for a postsecondary institution to deem them worthy of entering the workforce. Recognizing that there are always nuances between employers that warrant some workplace specific training, does it make sense that certain disciplines within the forensic umbrella require almost a year of formal on-the-job training before a hire is considered court qualified and ready to perform all job functions? Considering most in the field are graduate degree prepared, it feels like 6+ years of schooling should get you further than just ‘in the door.’
In two separate discussions over the last few weeks, one with a forensic unit manager and one with the Director of a very reputable Forensic Science graduate training program, we approached the topic with solutions in mind. While each of us differ in our perspective, our goals were clear: identify way(s) to keep talent in the pipeline, train them more effectively, and reduce the onboarding time needed once they enter the workforce. In both cases, the conversations gravitated to a point where our postsecondary institutions need to spend more time canvassing our practitioners to determine what they are looking for in graduates. Then work to tailor their training (whether graduate or undergraduate) to meet these needs. Additionally, training programs need to continually emphasize the ‘why’ by building in realistic snapshots of life in the shoes of practitioners – whether through case study, simulation, arranged internships/field experiences, or otherwise. If implemented, perhaps a marriage in the forensic community between industry/government and academia will provide a test pilot to spur more partnerships between stakeholders in other disciplines and clearly layout the ‘why’ for our next generation of students.