Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT), a leader on STEM issues in the House of Representatives, as she talks with 10th grader Riley Shreders and Larry Pomerleau, Manufacturing Technology Department chair, at Oliver Wolcott Technical High School in Torrington, Conn.

From the macro of immigration reform to the micro of engaging a third-grade science class, America’s trade and professional associations are tapping into what their members know and do best to develop a much-needed workforce skilled in science, technology, engineering, and math.

By Kristin Clarke

Finally, something everyone can agree on: America needs more people working in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) if the nation is to stay globally competitive.

The question is in how to make that happen—fast. Already, 52 percent of U.S. employers responding to a CareerBuilder survey acknowledge that finding qualified workers to fill STEM job vacancies is “difficult,” while other analyses show that “by 2020, an estimated 123 million high-skilled, high-paying jobs will exist, but just 50 million Americans will be qualified to take them.”

Fortunately, professional and trade associations with their millions of well-educated, experienced members working in every town, city, and rural area across the country are uniquely positioned to tackle the issue from assorted angles—and they are.

Associations are often cross-over forums for professionals and industry, a vantage point that helps them serve as liaisons between workers and employers to solve problems, educate with relevance, and identify trends and opportunities. Always a data-driven community, they see and understand perhaps more than most the dangers of what economists, educators, employers, and legislators call simply “the gap.”

More specifically, the gap results from a near-perfect economic storm:

  • high global youth unemployment (15.3 percent, double that of adults);
  • even higher U.S. school drop-out rates (30%), especially among minority populations;
  • low international rankings of student STEM proficiency by the Organization for Economic Coordination and Development, which placed American youth as 25th in math and 17th in science out of 31 countries.
  • extended work tenures of senior citizens unable or unwilling to retire and open space up the ladder for next-generation leaders to hone their abilities;
  • stubborn unemployment among workers laid off from outdated or out-competed manufacturers and businesses; and
  • current or expected shortages of skilled workers available for hire by industries from computer manufacturing to energy research, and professions from nursing to engineering.

Why Associations Care about STEM

“The American workforce has reached a critical juncture; even when the unemployment rate declines, new jobs will require higher levels of education and skills than many of the jobs of the past. Our workforce increasingly finds itself lacking the skills and education demanded by the growing needs and challenges of today’s global marketplace,” concludes the Business Roundtable’s Project American Workforce Survey Springboard report.

Other trade and professional leaders echo that concern. In a blog post on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce website, Frank Raidt calls to action the organization’s three million members to get involved in STEM-based education, particularly as volunteer mentors.

“America’s young people are independent, entrepreneurial, creative, and ambitious…. The information and communication technology (ICT) revolution—which young people understand well— … will continue to spawn new industries, businesses, and jobs in which youth can excel. We must support their dreams and talents with access to opportunity, finance, and entrepreneurial support, maximizing youth’s capacity to be job creators, not just job takers.”

Students and their parents will need that support, particularly in three primary areas of concern, according to research by the quality-focused engineering association ASQ. Its December 2011 study found that STEM-interested students fear the cost and time to get such a degree is “too high compared to other subjects” (26 percent); their “grades in STEM subjects (math and science) aren’t good enough” (25 percent), and “STEM-degree careers involve too much work and studying compared to other careers” (25 percent).

In addition, 53 percent of parents of 10- to 17-year-olds interested in STEM careers also worry that their child isn’t prepared enough by teachers in STEM subjects (26 percent), has inadequate grades (18 percent), and would spend too much time and money compared to obtaining other college degrees.

Aligning with Congressional Intent

Congress is not oblivious to these constituent anxieties. Despite stalled action on other national and educational issues, addressing the STEM gap is receiving more than just vocal support by legislators on both sides of the aisle, according to freshman Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT), already considered a leader on the issue.

On March 13, after working with House committee leaders and assorted stakeholders, she successfully built on her two earlier STEM bills–the STEM (Supporting Teachers and Enhancing Manufacturing) Jobs Act (H.R. 3243) and the First STEP (Supporting Training for Emp0loyment Potential) Act (H.R. 3244) Act–by introducing several bipartisan amendments that further boost workforce development and STEM education. She expects the amendments to go to the full Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on which she serves in April 2014.

“These are areas we all should agree on: supporting our manufacturers and our teachers,” Rep. Esty says. “I’ve heard time and time again from manufacturers that they can’t find workers with the right skill sets.”

The STEM Jobs Act aims to enhance related professional development programs for teachers via the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Education. The First STEP Act would allow and encourage students in state technical high schools, community colleges, and apprenticeship programs to earn nationally recognized credentials that match their skill sets with jobs in demand.

But legislative acts alone will not close the gap, Esty notes. “We need help if we’re going to get a skilled workforce. We need attention, and attention translates into a little funding and real collaboration,” she says.

Fortunately, associations are already classed in much of that. Here are 12 ways they are trying to make the grade:

Associations in Action on STEM

(1)         Scholarships/Grants: As a way to address skyrocketing college costs, especially for STEM majors who need multiple advanced degrees, many associations have stepped in to help during the busy January and February period of final college applications and scholarship deadlines.

In 2013, for instance, the Society of Women Engineers alone distributed more than $500,000 via 200 scholarships to women in baccalaureate or graduate programs prepped for careers in engineering, engineering technology, and computer science in the United States and Mexico.

Educational funding—scholarships, grants, paid internships, merit awards, and sponsorship–is probably the most common kind of association STEM program. Indeed, those monies add millions of dollars in aid to next-generation STEM professionals.

That’s critical since Harris Interactive research found that while 49 percent of parents of children age kindergarten to grade 12 view STEM as “a top priority,” just 24 percent say they are willing to pay extra for STEM education.

(2)         Scholarships and invitations to professional/trade meetings: Also easily found are scholarships and invitations not for schools but for STEM-related chapter, regional, and national association events and  conferences that give students and retrained workers networking, mentoring, and just-in-time education by leaders in the field. STEM students and professional newbies often can take opportunities to present their own research projects to attendees—a vital skill for any STEM worker—and obtain instant feedback and encouragement from those more experienced.

(3)         Mentoring: Of the many ways associations can and are addressing the STEM gap, few hold as much potential to accelerate the process than mobilizing the community’s masses around mentoring, both in schools and workplaces.

Rep. Esty urges women-focused and diversity-committed associations, in particular, to get involved in STEM promotion and training. She was the only female lawyer at her firm in the late 1980s, so “I know it is a special burden for women on top of all the other things we’re juggling to be urged to be mentors and to be public, but … it does matter. It matters to be available to participate in classrooms or at weekend workshops, to be on a robotics team or speak on career day.”

Girls need extra encouragement, concludes research by the quality-focused engineering organization ASQ. One ASQ study found that girls interested in pursuing a STEM career are four times more likely than interested boys “to believe that their teachers are not preparing them well enough in STEM subjects (33 percent versus 9 percent),” and among youth in grades 6 to 12, only 19 percent of girls believe that engineering will offer the most job opportunities when they graduate compared to 33 percent of boys.

“You can bet that [seeing a female STEM professional at school] makes a big difference for a child who maybe has no one at home who has ever been to college, to see themselves in the face of someone who is in front of their classroom,” says Rep. Esty, “so it’s important to make that time. [The gap] is not going to change without taking on that responsibility to mentor and to ensure young women, as well as men and women of color, see themselves in these fields.”

Myriad associations agree and are starting or expanding mentorship programs in schools and offices to recruit and retain STEM workers and students. The American Association of University Women (AAUW), for instance, ranks its STEM efforts as one of its top priorities, largely because STEM jobs usually help close a second kind of gap—the fact that women workers earn an average 77 cents for every dollar earned by male workers.

AAUW has been training its members and chapters to tackle the STEM problem not only nationally through weekly advocacy visits to Capitol Hill, but also locally through chapter discussions, STEM scholarships and targeted events for girls, and the use of tools such as its How-To-Be-A-STEM-Mentor Toolkit.

The Association for Women in Science, too, has tools such its latest handbook, Getting the Most out of Your Mentoring Relationships: A Handbook for Women in STEM.

(4) Career education: Teaching students, parents, and the unemployed or underemployed about the wide range of careers possible through STEM education requires using every outreach tool possible. Perhaps most powerful, though, are inspiring face-to-face conversations, a core competency of association professionals who are used to breaking down complex job responsibilities and tasks into more understandable pieces.

Thus, many associations participate in local and virtual job fairs and classroom career talks. They also develop classroom resources for teachers, so those “influentials” can speak knowledgeably about changing skill sets in STEM jobs and encourage youth to pursue college degrees.

A just-released survey by CareerBuilder reveals the urgency of those discussions. In a subset of 2,200 industry-diverse employers who say they will be hiring for STEM jobs this year (2014), 43 percent are hiring more college-educated workers for positions that were previously held by high school graduates.

Why? Fifty-five percent state that “skills for my positions have evolved, requiring higher-educated labor.”

“The economic value of a college education for workers has long been known, but as occupations evolve, and as companies rely more heavily on professionals with strong interpersonal and technical skill sets, workers can’t afford to stop their education at high school,” says Matt Ferguson, CEO, CareerBuilder.

(5) Administrative coaching: College applications, education loan paperwork, and research into best-fit academic programs can be complicated, stressful, and time-consuming.

Removing the “hassles” of a STEM career path is a goal for a range of associations, including ASQ. Its 2012 research found that, while teens rank some STEM-related careers as offering the best chance of getting a job in the future, two-thirds of interested youth in grades 6-12 fear obstacles.

To guide students and parents through the process, chapters of the Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators hold service days each February with one-on-one coaching by members about how to complete the influential Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form used by higher education schools to determine eligibility for government financial aid programs. The FAFSA application also often plays a critical role in obtaining need-based scholarships, especially for STEM majors whose educational costs run high.

(6) Unique hands-on programs: “Invent It. Build It,” created by the Society of Women Engineers as a legacy project for its annual conferences, engages middle-school girls in engineering myth-busting and hands-on experiences such as building an electronic game box or installing circuitry. The program also has a parallel outreach program for parents and educators.

AAUW, too, has a proven track record of program delivery, providing STEM education to more than 11,000 girls annually. Its national STEM camps and conferences target a vulnerable demographic: middle-school girls.

Congressional leaders recognize that the dropoff of STEM interest by pre-teen girls is an additional challenge within the STEM problem. “If we’re not engaging girls and children of color, we’re losing out on about 65 to 70 percent of our future workforce,” says Rep. Esty, who recently launched the first congressionally sponsored app-building competition for high schoolers.

(7) Try-it options: App-building and other hands-on learning coaxes students to engage in meaningful, fun projects. Associations from the Girl Scouts of America to the Math Association schedule competitions and creative events that let boys and girls experiment with STEM projects through camps, role-playing, festivals, micro-apprenticeships, National Engineering Week, and more.

The American Chemical Society (ACS), for instance, took over the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway during its 2013 national conference to hold the annual Celebrate Science Indiana science fair, a collaboration between festival organizations and the ACS Indiana Local Section to celebrate ways that science improves everyday life and to recruit young people “to join the excitement and enter careers in STEM fields.”

The Society of Women Engineers offers “experience events” called Wow! That’s Engineering! Middle and high school girls meet female engineers and technologists, hear first-hand stories about those career paths, and join interactive activities that emphasize the creativity and innovation occurring engineering fields. SWE’s Event-in-a-Box microsite also offers Wow! That’s Engineering! Tools and Templates.

(8) Awards: Recognition can be an inspiring and easy way to reward successful STEM advocates, students, and teachers, and to build awareness of programs that work. The National Association of Biology Teachers and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)’s Women in Engineering are just two of dozens that honor high-achievers for outstanding STEM programs and projects.

(9) Teacher training and parent education: From science to healthcare, architecture to video game development, associations provide often-free or low-cost training and materials to teachers strapped for cash and time but hungry for the latest, most relevant knowledge for their students.

IEEE is among associations offering pre-university education resources for students, teachers, parents, and employers, as well as lesson plans for teachers on computing, a list of computing majors and which universities offer them, and profiles of workers in engineering positions. An innovative Visual Career Cloud Tool in which a student clicks on traits such as “leading” or “solving problems,” triggers career options encompassing those interests. Self-assessment tools also alert students to possible computing careers, as does a video on charting a computer career on the IEEE website.

(10)             STEM Research: Associations are known for their research expertise, and more is being directed at STEM subjects than ever before. The AAUW research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, is one example of evidence-gathering that “environmental and social barriers continue to limit women’s participation and progress in these fields” and what can be done about it.

(11)             Job retraining to fill STEM gaps: Professional and trade organizations are constantly offering job skills development workshops, courses, and certification exams to boost the abilities of its members and their overall trades or professions.

A great story about this occurs in Pennsylvania, where a private-public partnership is making progress in upgrading skills of laid-off or underemployed workers so that they can fill serious shortages of STEM-skilled workers needed by local manufacturers. A professional association of college presidents, trustees, and administrators at the state’s 14 community colleges–the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges (PCCC)—is delivering on goals stated in a unique $20-million U.S. Department of Labor grant given it in 2011.

The grant funds expanded industry-recognized certification training and strategically added courses in industries such as energy distribution, production, conservation, healthcare, and information technologies.

According to Alex Johnson, president of PCCC and the Community College of Allegheny County, “Fields like advanced manufacturing (Mechatronics) and energy are expected to add more than 16,000 jobs to the Pennsylvania economy by 2018.”

The association has been working with employers to design industry-specific curricula, develop recruitment and retention strategies, and reach out to the 57 percent of Pennsylvanians who work in trade-related fields but have received only a high school diploma or equivalent.

“The community colleges are collaborating in an unprecedented way to bring our workforce delivery and curriculum development systems to scale for achieving new levels of success with our adult students, particularly for our laid-off workers who have little chance of returning to prior wage levels without new credentials,” says Diane Bosak, PCCC executive director.

The grant may be a model for other STEM collaborations among professional and trade associations, government leaders, and employers.

(12)             Providing role models: “Without diversity in all fields, the United States will not remain technically competitive,” says NASA aerospace engineer Aprille Ericsson in an AAUW article that notes she speaks regularly at the group’s chapter STEM events.  “The different perspective that each human being brings forth toward solving problems and creating unique tools is required for us to continue to create awesome projects like Mars Rovers, prosthetic limbs, or nano cancer treatments.”

Role modeling and mentoring are two of the top to-do’s for associations on Rep. Etsy’s list  when asked what associations can do to further align STEM efforts with congressional intent. Others include collaborations, an in-school presence, pressure on policy makers, ongoing awareness education of trade and professional members, and STEM-related storytelling to stakeholders.

“I would love to be able to give more examples and follow up on examples that [associations] are doing that I could help promote and suggest to people in my state as templates that they could think about doing,” says Esty. “Creativity and disseminating best practices is a lot of what I as an elected legislator can do. When there’s not a lot of funding, we can achieve a lot by just learning from who’s successfully doing programs that are working.”

AUTHOR: Kristin Clarke is a longtime business journalist and editor for ASAE, as well as director of social responsibility and Convene Green Alliance. She may be reached at