Can Writing Help Close the STEM Skills Gap?
The United States Department of Commerce predicts that the demand for workers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields will grow at almost twice the rate of non-STEM fields. However, STEM employers regularly report that jobs go unfilled for extended periods because they can’t find workers with the skills those jobs require.
The perceived lack of skilled workers has created a national focus on developing education in science, technology, engineering, and math, but what might be missing from that discussion is an equal focus on writing in the curriculum.
STEM skills alone don’t do the job
Recent studies of the STEM skills gap reveal that the solution may be more complex than just putting more students into the STEM pipeline. A study by The Brookings Institution reveals that employers may not have problems finding candidates with computer skills, for example, but the trouble lies in finding computer-savvy candidates who possess the full range of skills required for the jobs in question.
The combination of STEM and soft skills is what is lacking, the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) says. In its white paper “The Global STEM Paradox,” the NYAS explains that STEM candidates must deliver both technical expertise and “soft skills” to fulfill the needs of innovative companies today and in the future.
The NYAS paper notes, among other factors, “The frequent emphasis on rote learning and memorization in STEM subjects often results in graduates who struggle to apply the concepts they learned to the real-life challenges they face in the workplace. Students often graduate … without the complementary soft skills in communication, critical thinking, and teamwork necessary for successful employment.”
Writing as a core STEM requirement
Although most universities and technical training schools do require a writing component, the perception among students and program leaders is that writing is not a truly essential part of their program. Theresa MacPhail, Assistant Professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology, cites a common sentiment among science students: In their chosen fields, they really won’t need to know how to write.
However, the feedback that MacPhail gets from employers reveals that writing is the critical element for building those soft skills that are essential for real-world jobs. MacPhail cites employers who look beyond field-specific knowledge to find candidates who excel at:
- Communication — Writing skills are important both in routine daily tasks and in bigger jobs, such as creating a proposal to get funding or directing the workflow of a project team.
- Critical thinking — Writing is thinking, and the practice of writing develops students’ ability to analyze information, extract meaning, and reach conclusions and goals.
- Teamwork — Particularly in a global marketplace, collaboration increasingly happens in written form across great distances. Clearly written instructions, annotations, and even email messages are indispensable for ensuring teams work efficiently and effectively.
Just like scientific processes and mechanical design techniques, writing is a skill that can be taught and practiced. STEM students who have strong writing skills will bring employers the complex thinking and problem-solving skills they are looking for.