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Greenville Business Magazine

STEM jobs are the future...but the number of STEM instructors is declining

By David Dykes

A key question that should be central to discussions surrounding education these days is simply put: Are we preparing the next generation for tomorrow’s global challenges?

Educators and business leaders in South Carolina say the answer is yes, and they wrap that feeling around a four-letter acronym—STEM, for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. 

STEM fields are growing in the state. According to South Carolina’s Coalition for Mathematics & Science—a group founded by BMW Manufacturing Co., DuPont, Michelin North America, and Duke Energy and hosted by Clemson University’s College of Engineering, Computing, and Applied Science—STEM jobs will grow 13 percent between 2017 and 2027, a significant increase compared with non-STEM job growth of 8 percent.

The money is also in STEM as well, with median earnings in South Carolina for these jobs at $33.84 an hour, while median earnings in all other South Carolina jobs is $16.41 an hour, the coalition says.

The coalition, citing a 2017 state report, says, however, that South Carolina’s future STEM teacher pipeline might be in danger. Out of the nearly 23,000 South Carolina students with an interest in STEM, slightly fewer than 100 planned to enter math education and only 33 in science education. In fact, the number of South Carolina teachers who leave the classroom has grown each year since 2011-12, according to a Winthrop University study released earlier this year.

Roger Moore, an Atlanta-based Southern Legislative Conference policy analyst who has studied STEM education, says in our globalized, automation-driven workforce, occupations requiring STEM skills will continue to grow faster than the overall job market. And yet, Moore notes, openings for physics, chemistry, and math instructors often are the hardest to fill, leaving schools with few options beyond hiring teachers without proper certification or the necessary background.

Through legislation and partnerships with the private sector, philanthropic organizations, and universities, Southern states have taken steps toward ensuring they will have enough qualified and well-prepared STEM teachers, Moore says. Those include providing financial incentives for students and professionals interested in pursuing teaching careers in STEM subjects, incentives that would include loan forgiveness and sizeable college scholarships for prospective teachers. Higher pay won’t hurt either.

Both Moore and Eliza Gallagher, an assistant professor of engineering and science education at Clemson University, say teacher retention remains vital to maintaining a robust STEM-competent workforce. 

“The people who teach STEM subjects have a background in a STEM area and, because of that, they have so many other opportunities potentially available to them outside of teaching—in all likelihood, opportunities that are going to be more lucrative,” Moore says.

The two say South Carolina, for its part, should continue leveraging its private-sector presence. The state can partner with larger companies that have ample resources to develop coursework that will ensure students get skills that will help them in the workforce.

“One of the advantages that we have in South Carolina is the amount of industry that we have here,” says Gallagher, who has a Ph.D. in engineering and science education. “There are lots of different industry leaders who have a vested interest in this state being able to produce enough STEM-ready workers.”

But it must start at an early age, says Michael Williams, facility personnel manager at Greenville-based Michelin North America. 

Accordingly, the tire giant is devoted to Michelin Challenge Education, a program that focuses on supporting public elementary schools close to major Michelin facilities. Company employees act as mentors, tutors, and volunteers to form a genuine partnership between each facility and its adopted school.

“In South Carolina, the jobs of the future are going to require highly technical-skilled individuals,” says Tim Hardee, president of the S.C. Technical College System. “The STEM programs that go back from elementary to middle to high schools in effect are preparing people for that workforce of the future.” 

Fortunately in South Carolina, STEM-related programs and activities abound. In addition to those at Clemson and other higher education institutions, programs are offered through a number of University of South Carolina colleges and schools including the College of Engineering and Computing, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the College of Education. The McNair Center in Columbia, for example, encourages students to prepare for careers in the aerospace cluster.

And STEM students are being recognized for their work across the state.

In April, 94 South Carolina high school seniors were recognized at the 3rd Annual S.C. STEM Signing Day by Boeing South Carolina, BMW, and the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance. The event singled out students who have pursued STEM education during their high school tenure and plan to continue their STEM education at two- and four-year colleges. 

Also in April, Greenville County Schools announced the Sterling School/Charles Townes Center PTA received a $5,000 grant to engage families in technology education. Sterling School/CTC was one of only 20 PTAs nationwide selected to receive a grant through the STEM + Families initiative, recognizing Sterling School/CTC’s leadership and commitment to increasing access to STEM—and particularly technology—experiences for its students.

Sterling School/CTC used the grant to host a “STEM + Families Invention Night” with equipment and materials acquired through the grant. Parents and students used hands-on invention kits, learned about STEM careers, and connected families and students to STEM learning enrichment opportunities.

At her event, Sara Hazzard, the manufacturers alliance’s president and CEO, said, “We are very proud to celebrate the achievements and future steps of some of our state’s brightest minds—students who will lead the way as we advance innovation and technology in the 21st century.”

Here’s hoping we’ll have enough teachers, and support for them and all of STEM education, to make it happen.

The alternative isn’t so promising.