U.S. strength in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines has formed the basis of innovations, technologies, and industries that have spurred the nation’s economic growth throughout the last 150 years. Universities are essential to the creation and transfer of new knowledge that drives innovation. This knowledge moves out of the university and into broader society in several ways—through highly skilled graduates (i.e., human capital); academic publications; and the creation of new products, industries, and companies via the commercialization of scientific breakthroughs. Despite this, our understanding of how universities receive, interpret, and respond to industry signaling demands for STEM-trained workers is far from complete.
While our economy is increasingly global in nature, it remains true that most of the responsibility for—and actions required to enhance—economic growth are local. It is incumbent upon individual communities to become self-reliant economic engines operating on four “cylinders—residential, business, public sector, and nonprofit.”1 This principle reflects the notion that local talent and human capital is an essential driver of a community’s economic vitality, and suggests that colleges and universities—and their graduates—have an important role to play.
Educators, policy makers, industry leaders, and others recognize the importance of strong college-university-industry collaboration in preparing the STEM workforce of the future. Two recent reports from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (Engage to Excel, 2012) and the National Science and Technology Council (Federal STEM Education 5-Year Strategic Plan, 2013) emphasize the importance of encouraging stronger university-industry partnerships as vehicles to enhance student learning and diversify pathways to careers in STEM. The landmark National Academies report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm (National Research Council, 2007), also examined the essential relationships between university-industry collaboration and regional economic growth. The report suggested that partnerships among academia, governments, and industry succeed when all members of the partnership see the collaboration as in their best interests, and further, pursue these relationships in the spirit of mutual trust and appreciation of the value that each partner brings to the table.
To explore common and proposed practices in establishing such partnerships, a committee organized under the auspices of the Board on Higher Education and Workforce of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine undertook an 18-month study of the extent to which universities and employers in five metropolitan communities (Phoenix, Arizona; Cleveland, Ohio; Montgomery, Alabama; Los Angeles, California; and Fargo, North Dakota) collaborate successfully to align curricula, labs, and other undergraduate educational experiences with current and prospective regional STEM workforce needs.
The key topic for this study was as follows: How to create the kind of university-industry collaboration that promotes higher-quality college and university course offerings, lab activities, applied learning experiences, work-based learning programs, and other activities that enable students to acquire knowledge, skills, and attributes they need to be successful in the STEM workforce. The primary area of focus was on whether universities give students both the breadth and
1Robbins, C. (2014). All Economies Are Local: A Jobs and Growth Strategy for Cities and Towns. Municipal Advocate 27, no. 4:22–23.
the depth of experiences in STEM courses, labs, and applied learning activities—and in the totality of their undergraduate experiences—to ensure that they move into their careers with the skills and competencies to be successful workers and learners prepared to meet a region’s STEM workforce needs. Given that recent work that has demonstrated that a region’s economic prosperity is related to the educational attainment of its inhabitants, this study focused on the link between universities and employers at local and regional levels.2
Three overarching findings emerged from the study:
- Significant numbers of university students are graduating with STEM degrees, but many lack the right combination of technical and employability skills needed to thrive in the workplace. In short, we have many students with credentials, but fewer with the requisite skills to succeed early in STEM careers. This situation is particularly acute with minority students and female students, who are still significantly underrepresented in the STEM workforce and in STEM degree fields in most 4-year universities.
- Employers are increasingly focusing on the skills and abilities new hires possess, rather than the specific field in which an individual has obtained a degree or credential. While there is a need for STEM graduates who will work as professional research and development scientists and engineers (so-called STEM narrow skills), there is a growing need for individuals who apply STEM knowledge and skills in technologically sophisticated occupations that require a facility with STEM concepts, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree (so-called STEM broad skills). There is also a growing need for students with a breadth of skills outside of their core STEM discipline, including skills that are perhaps best developed through a well-rounded liberal education that includes STEM courses, humanities courses, and experiences in the arts. These include problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork and collaboration, communication, and creativity.
- A robust and effective STEM workforce development ecosystem requires proactive steps on behalf of university leaders, local employers, and intermediary organizations to build and sustain alliances that benefit students and regional economic development. Most of the concrete and high-impact strategies that surfaced during the course of the study—including those recommended in this report—do not require extensive policy change by governing boards, but rather can be undertaken at the classroom, department, or program level within a college or university, often in collaboration with a local employer.
The committee offers many additional findings as well as a detailed set of recommendations—all included in Chapter 5 of this report. We summarize the key recommendations here in the form of specific action steps that individual leaders and partners can take in a region to create and sustain the types of higher education–employer partnerships that can create significant opportunities for STEM students, as well as encourage stronger economic development in a region:
- Foster a spirit of collaboration with local and regional higher education institutions so that employees are empowered to engage in collaborative workforce-building activities.
2In its analysis of the five regions, the committee examined the nature and scope of collaboration among 2-year colleges, 4-year colleges and universities, research universities, and local employers (including local business and industry, local nonprofit and government agencies, local utilities, and others). The primary focus of this study, however—and therefore the primary focus of the findings and recommendations of this report—is on collaboration between universities and local employers.
- Reach out to university presidents and deans and offer to build over time a university-business partnership that strengthens the local economy, enhances business operations, and creates more learning opportunities for students—many of whom will be the future employees of the business.
- Designate a high-level executive to serve as the initial point of contact with one or more local universities, and give this individual the power and authority to enter into formal relationships with local institutions (and, where appropriate, with third-party intermediaries). Make this effort a high-profile, high-priority activity of the business. The position should be established within the chief executive officer’s office as a business development function, rather than in the company’s human resources division.
- Work with one or more local higher education leaders, government officials, or third-party intermediaries to conduct a regional assessment of the economy that includes multiple sources of labor market data and employers assessment of the current and future workforce needs, and identifies the specific steps that are under way (and/or that need to be launched or expanded) to support stronger collaboration among partners—with the dual goals of enhancing the local economy and strengthening student preparation for success in the regional workforce.
- Prioritize the development of as many work-based learning opportunities as possible for students and faculty—including paid internships, apprenticeships, and other experiences that provide hands-on, experiential learning at the worksite. Ensure that these opportunities include stipends or wages and emphasize diversity and the inclusion of groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields.
- Reach out to other businesses in the region with the same technical skill needs and develop collaborative programs to enlarge the region’s STEM-capable workforce. Consider joining or creating sector-focused consortia.
- Encourage employees to serve as mentors to local college and university students—especially to underrepresented minority students and female students who may not have exposure to many role models pursuing this career pathway. Urge mentors to meet regularly with students, and even bring them to the worksite regularly to participate in meetings, projects, and other activities.
- Foster a spirit of collaboration with local and regional businesses, including empowering faculty to engage in cooperative and workforce-building activities.
- Work with one or more local business leaders, government officials, or third-party intermediaries to conduct a regional assessment of the economy that includes multiple sources of labor market data and local employers assessment of the current and future workforce needs, and identifies the specific steps that are under way (and/or that need to be launched or expanded) to support stronger collaboration among partners—with the dual goals of enhancing the local economy and strengthening student preparation for success in the regional workforce. Make this a high-profile exercise to work with local business leaders and others to “take stock” of local employer workforce needs, and make a public commitment to better aligning the university’s education programs, labs, curricula, and applied learning experiences to future STEM workforce projections.
- Designate a high-level administrator or faculty member to serve as the initial point of contact with local businesses and give this individual the power and authority to enter into formal relationships with them (and, where appropriate, with third-party intermediaries). Among the responsibilities of this individual should be coordinating departmental STEM advisory boards. Make this effort a high-profile, high-priority activity of the university.
- Organize and host a regional meeting on campus involving prospective partners, including business leaders, government agencies, chambers of commerce, individual entrepreneurs, and civic associations—focused on creating and sustaining a “regional STEM workforce development ecosystem” that shares the common goals of improving the local economy and strengthening human capital resources in the region.
- Encourage the creation of one or more STEM advisory boards on campus—housed in various academic departments and coordinated by the individual with responsibility for serving as the point of contact for business—for the purpose of regularly and deliberately engaging the local employer community in discussions about current and prospective workforce needs, collaboration, engagement, and mutual support. Ensure that these advisory boards are sufficiently diverse, and emphasize the importance of broadening participation in STEM.
- Using student migration analyses, track attrition in STEM courses and majors in the first 2 years of undergraduate education, and create a plan for increasing completion rates in STEM majors, especially for female and underrepresented minority students. Make use of the variety of evidence-based interventions known to improve student retention and persistence in STEM majors and occupations.
UNIVERSITY DEANS AND FACULTY
- Work with third-party intermediaries to create a regional advisory board that involves both business leaders and employees to ensure that the knowledge, skills, and attributes that students are gaining through their educational experiences are aligned with current and future workforce needs. If necessary, involve local industry officials in the redesign or creation of curricula, labs, and other campus-based experiences.
- Seek out opportunities for both faculty and students to secure internships, apprenticeships, and other work-based learning experiences in local industry and government agencies and labs. In addition, bring local business leaders and employees into the classroom and campus labs as visiting instructors on how industry works to remain current in rapidly changing fields.
- When internships and apprenticeships are limited, create simulated real-world applied learning experiences on campus that mirror the experiences in local work sites, so that students have exposure to workplace conditions and challenges and ensure that accreditation requirements do not become a barrier to the development of innovative applied learning experiences. Recognize that the workplace is often characterized by challenging multilayered problems that require teamwork and collaboration and good interpersonal relationships to identify possible solutions.
- Remain vigilant with efforts to recruit and retain underrepresented minority students and females into STEM majors and pathways. Provide support systems that enable minority and female students to engage regularly with mentors and peers who might have faced, or are currently facing, similar challenges in meeting the demands of the curriculum. Create an “early warning” system to monitor student progress and alert faculty to challenges that students are facing and may have difficulty addressing themselves without some kind of intervention and support.
- Track enrollment and attrition in STEM courses and majors in the first 2 years of undergraduate education, and create a plan for increasing completion rates in STEM majors, especially for female and underrepresented minority students. Make use of the variety of evidence-based interventions known to improve student retention and persistence in STEM majors and occupations.
- Ensure that appropriate incentives are in place for faculty who champion collaborative partnership activities: tenure, salary, summer funding, and infrastructure and personnel
resources as needed. Consider grants for workforce development activities as having similar levels of prestige as those for research activities.
STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT AGENCIES
- Work with a third-party intermediary to organize and facilitate a rigorous data collection and analysis effort that attempts to understand the current and future workforce needs in the region, and communicate the findings with both university officials and local businesses.
- Collaborate with third-party intermediary organizations focused on the creation of university-industry partnerships.
- Use legislation and, where possible, funding to incentivize partnerships, collaboration, internships, and other activities that bring students and faculty into regular and sustained contact with local employers. Even relatively modest investments of federal, state, or local dollars can encourage employers and institutions to dedicate time and resources to fostering creative partnerships that can then be sustained over time.
(e.g., Chambers of Commerce, Workforce Investment Boards
Economic Development Organizations, Industry Consortia)
- Prioritize the importance of broadening participation in STEM education and workforce development pathways by helping to organize, support, and sustain cross-sector partnerships for workforce preparation.
- Facilitate the creation of effective workforce development partnerships among local employers and universities by
- Bridging some of the cultural and communication barriers that can present obstacles to partnerships;
- Establishing lines of communication between partners;
- Organizing convening events;
- Helping employers and universities understand the region’s competitive advantages by addressing data and information needs;
- Bringing promising partnership activities to scale; and
- Assisting with securing outside sources of funding, as appropriate.
- Fulfill strategic functions of planning, convening, connecting and brokering, and measuring and evaluating collaborative efforts to promote the development, maintenance, and long-term sustainability of the STEM workforce development ecosystem.