Assistant Dean Featured Expert in WalletHub’s Coverage of Best & Worst Metro Areas for STEM Professionals

Donna Pattison Shares How to Create and Retain More STEM Professionals

This article was originally written by Adam McCann and published on WalletHub. Visit their website for the full story.

Like all professions, STEM occupations pose challenges to graduates who wish to pursue such careers. WalletHub asked a panel of experts their advice to job seekers and local governments that stand to benefit from growth in the field. One of the experts is Donna Pattison, instructional professor of biology and biochemistry and assistant dean for student success at the University of Houston College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. Pattison answered the following key questions:

Donna Pattison
Donna Pattison is assistant dean for student success at the UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and instructional professor of biology and biochemistry.
  1. According to recent census figures, the majority of STEM graduates do not ultimately work in a STEM occupation. Why is that the case?
  2. How can the U.S. stay ahead of other countries in attracting and training the best STEM professionals?
    How can local authorities make their cities more appealing to STEM graduates and technology companies?
  3. How can government, employers and educators increase the number of women and minorities in STEM fields?
  4. How has the pandemic impacted the STEM field in terms of education and employment?

In WalletHub’s analysis of the Best and Worst Metro Areas for STEM Professionals, Houston ranked 37th of 100 areas making the Best Cities for STEM Jobs.

According to recent census figures, the majority of STEM grads do not ultimately work in a STEM occupation. Why is that the case?

Several factors contribute to a lack of congruency between STEM degree attainment and employment in STEM-related work. Some of these findings are due to the definitions of STEM used with large data sets in surveys. For example, high school math and science teachers are not typically classified as working in STEM, likely due to difficulties in extracting subject-level information from survey data, but these individuals are most definitely STEM workers.

Some issues in translating STEM degrees into STEM careers relate to mismatches between the level of skills needed (bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral degrees) and the number of individuals with the appropriate level of education. There is also an overproduction of graduates in areas, such as the life and biomedical sciences, and underproduction in areas such as the computer sciences. As more data becomes accessible, savvy students should be able to better match their choice of study with areas of high demand as it has become increasingly clear that the job market is not uniform across disciplines.

Location of jobs and salary ranges also influence the decision to work in a relevant STEM field. Particularly for women and minorities, there is a strong tendency to stay close to family support networks; this can ultimately impact employment choices if STEM jobs are not available near their homes. Additionally, low entry-level salaries in some STEM fields are not conducive to retaining graduates in work aligned with the attained degree.

How can the U.S. stay ahead of other countries in attracting and retaining the best STEM professionals?

We need to do a better job of ensuring our students are interested in STEM and leave high school with adequate math skills to be pre-calculus or calculus ready as they enter college. Math is one of the key barriers to student success in STEM and a leading cause of the attrition rate. Students who do not complete calculus by the end of their first year rarely complete a STEM degree.

To get students to this point, they must have the resources they need to be successful. Schools have shifted to electronic textbooks and expect students to log in to the textbook site from home to complete their homework. We must ensure every student has a dedicated device for home use that is not being shared with parents and siblings; universal access to the Internet is critical. The heavy reliance on technology in the schools that mirrors the use of technology in industry and society has greatly increased the cost of operations for public schools. The public must commit to funding the schools for the U.S. to remain competitive.

Student success in math is tied to making sure students are engaged in school. Arts and extracurricular activities have a big impact on engagement and need to be fully supported. Students involved in these activities have something they look forward to in their school day and have stable social support groups where they often benefit from informal academic support from their peers. The arts in particular foster creativity, a key characteristic needed for innovation and technological advances.

How can local authorities make their cities more appealing to STEM graduates and technology companies?

A critical mass of companies in related areas is needed. Employees take into consideration whether they may have to relocate again if the company they are considering downsizes, so creating a hub for specific industries can build a healthy local workforce. Cities should provide incentives to encourage start-ups to stay, rather than licensing the technology to larger companies or selling the entire company to a larger company in another city. These actions may help seed the development of a robust and stable hub. If an incubator complex is built to encourage start-ups, consider whether building away from the downtown area would help reduce commuting time for employees and allow them to live closer to work in more affordable housing.

How can government, employers, and educators increase the number of women and minorities in STEM fields?

Summer Bridge programs that transition students from high school to college have a long history of improving student success, particularly if the students are part of a community that provides additional academic support, mentoring, and research experiences. These programs improve graduation and retention rates for all students but are particularly useful for closing the gap in college readiness for low-income, minority students who are disproportionately impacted by attendance at low-performing high schools. Given strained university budgets, maintaining these programs is often challenging beyond the period of grant funding. Financial support from the industry can help to maintain programs.

The placement of students into internships to gain real-world experience can have a significant impact on the production of STEM graduates and produces a well-prepared workforce. However, internships need to be paid opportunities and not just free labor. Many students work while attending school to support themselves and their families and cannot afford to engage in an internship if they will have to forgo pay.

To increase the number of women working in STEM fields, providing affordable on-site or near-site day care options is crucial. Inability to find affordable, conveniently located childcare is an obstacle to employment for women. As we have seen during the pandemic, women are still the primary caregivers for their children. Flexible work hours to manage oddball school pick-up and drop-off times would improve the ability of women with STEM training to participate in the workforce. Creating some part-time positions that would allow women to keep their foot in the door and stay current in their disciplines would be helpful, as many women end up leaving the workforce to manage children and elder care and then are not able to return as STEM employees because their training is considered obsolete.

Providing training in understanding what unintentional bias is and how it creeps into decisions and workplace culture is important in reducing barriers for full and equitable participation of women and minorities in STEM fields. This training is particularly critical for hiring committees to ensure women and minority candidates are not unintentionally excluded from interview pools. The use of rubrics with quantifiable elements can help reduce bias, leading to a more diverse workforce that is likely to attract more diverse future candidates as well.

How has the pandemic impacted the STEM field in terms of education and employment?

The pandemic has led to more interest in public health professions even though we have seen an exodus out of health care professions due to exhaustion and frustration. Students are recognizing the need for scientists and engineers who can develop diagnostic tests, drugs, vaccines, and equipment needed for patient care, and who have the skills to manage and track complex large-scale data sets.

Both educators and employers have become vastly more skilled in using online platforms for communication, training, and project coordination during the pandemic. For STEM educators, opportunities for hands-on laboratory experiences were greatly reduced during the shut-down. Some experiences simply cannot be replicated in an online simulation and many skills cannot be mastered by watching a video. Continuing supply-chain issues are impacting laboratory work in all sectors, slowing the speed of research and development.

Best and Worst Metro Areas for STEM Professionals

Source: WalletHub

STEM workers are in fierce demand, and not just in the global epicenter of high tech known as Silicon Valley. According to the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis, STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — professions are expected to grow 10.5% between 2020 and 2030, compared to just 7.5% for all other occupations. In addition, the median annual STEM wage is $89,780, compared to $40,020 for all non-STEM occupations.

To determine the best markets for STEM professionals, WalletHub compared the 100 largest metro areas across 19 key metrics. Their data set ranges from per-capita job openings for STEM graduates to median wage growth for STEM jobs.

To read the full article, visit WalletHub’s website.