Many US companies report difficulty finding qualified candidates; read how one institution is taking action.
Over the past 10 years, the number of jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields has grown at three times the rate of jobs in other professions; today, STEM roles make up 20% of all positions. According to the US Department of Labor, between 2010 and 2020 the overall employment in STEM occupations is projected to increase by 17%. Yet a significant number of US companies report difficulty in finding qualified candidates to fill critical vacancies. Institutions of higher education are paying attention, and some are taking action to respond to the needs of industry.
Learning and Working in New Mexico
Part of the New Mexico State University (NMSU) system, Doña Ana Community College (DACC) was one of 26 recipients of Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (iPASS) grants in 2015; funding for the DACC project came from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. The college was one of just four institutions that received a grant for a STEM-focused initiative.
Obtaining this grant was a strategic move, as New Mexico anticipated a need for more than 49,000 STEM employees by 2018, with nearly 4 in 10 STEM jobs involving engineering and technical occupations. Half of all STEM jobs won't require a four-year college degree, which offers a lucrative opportunity for graduates of technical and two-year colleges. Moreover, among jobs that do require a four-year degree, the average pay for STEM-related jobs is 10% higher than for non-STEM positions.
Rajaa Shindi, a part-time faculty member and database developer at DACC, serves as one of the college's iPASS project leads. "Our initial purpose was to purchase tools that help with planning and the integration of components needed for successful advising efforts," says Shindi. "One narrative was focused solely on how we could increase STEM awareness."
What they explored could quickly be translated into a campus-wide movement, requiring efforts across departments and a firm commitment to STEM awareness and advising. The team felt that this could cement their position locally as a STEM-focused community college that prepares students to pursue STEM fields, both in the workplace and in further education.
To get there, they established a vision for the project:
- The critical role of STEM education and training to qualify for a well-paid blue collar and/or technical job will be communicated frequently and emphatically while being integrated into the language and culture of DACC.
- DACC will be a vital student and community resource for information related to the demand — and the practical skills required — for careers in STEM fields.
- DACC will research and consolidate critical and basic information about STEM programs and individual courses. Specifically, the college will identify, define, and organize the STEM domain and related domains based on occupation with the duties and skills associated with each occupation type identified.
Next, the team at DACC set measurable, achievable goals for advising students on STEM pathways.
1. Identify, promote, and increase program completion in high-demand STEM academic/career pathways.
The team selected three programs that lead to high-demand STEM occupations: general engineering, associate of science, and computer science. Today, DACC is in the process of collaborating with program advisory boards — which have strong representation from employers — to better identify critical STEM workforce needs. Advisors, faculty, and staff who serve as frontline communicators with students have been trained on iPASS software applications, which DACC hopes will improve retention and expedite completion in the aforementioned cohorts.
Through the Achieving the Dream/EDUCAUSE iPASS grant, DACC implemented the first phase of Ellucian CRM Advise, a technology that engages students in learning how to successfully navigate higher education. Using CRM Advise and the necessary caseload assignments, advisors are able to target special populations within their caseloads for special advising initiatives. The college is currently focusing on STEM students by placing advising/registration holds on all STEM students; using degree maps with all STEM students; and field-testing CRM Advise interventions on STEM students.
2. Align pathways (secondary, postsecondary, workforce) based on workforce needs.
The college has partnered with technical education programs to connect secondary pathways to college programs en route to in-demand STEM roles or STEM-focused bachelor's degree programs.
DACC continues to analyze workforce needs and responds by offering relevant STEM programs to meet them. Ongoing analysis of DACC's current STEM program performance data helps determine the direction and focus of existing and future programs through the use of predictive analytics and data-driven strategies and decisions.
3. Recruit underrepresented populations into STEM pathways.
Data suggest that the US educational system is not producing enough STEM graduates, and the shortage of Hispanic and female STEM workers is even greater. As a Hispanic-serving institution, DACC is dedicated to increasing opportunities for underserved populations to pursue STEM academic programs and careers, and the grant has enabled DACC to scale-up recruitment efforts in the areas of general engineering, associate of science, and computer science, specifically targeting these populations.
STEM at a Community College
"We had a huge conversation about what exactly STEM is at a community college," Shindi recalls. "Is it a technical degree that is practical and applicable? Or does it incorporate theory? We wanted to include every department and division that deals with these related areas, including advising. We strongly supported advising leadership and offered workshops to the advisers in fields like computer science, which I led, and we invited faculty from NMSU's College of Engineering to open up specific discussions that may not arise in the routine nature of the advising team's work."
Shindi is confident that DACC isn't only enhancing its informational and advising services but that the institution will attract and prepare more students for STEM roles. She cautions that technical domain expertise is only part of the solution, however.
"This isn't about just knowing the material in a given STEM domain; it's also about the breadth of a student's education," Shindi says. "We all hear it: Computational thinking, problem solving, and critical thinking are vital 21st-century skills. At the college level, we need to be aligned with what's happening in technology, where so many aspects of professions are rapidly changing and improving. Our students will need to be adaptive in order to succeed."
Open workshops on popular topics such as app development have attracted attendees in the hundreds. Other collaborative efforts include information fairs, which involve both faculty and advising staff, where fields such as data science, software engineering, and computer programming are discussed. As a result, students who were previously unsure of their prospects in a STEM field often engage with their advisers and return to similar events with curiosity and excitement. The college has even adopted a new logo that prominently displays its relationship to STEM fields:
The STEM initiatives are everywhere, Shindi notes, but the difference is that DACC is focusing exclusively on a community college audience, which isn't often included in such efforts. "We have encountered challenges from a motivational perspective," she says. "Getting students to attend events, to take the time to explore, and to be willing to set aside their apprehension about quantitative courses hasn't been easy. The more connected we become to local high schools, the better results we're seeing once students have enrolled."
Shindi reports that what DACC team has accomplished thus far is having a positive impact. "We've planted a seed, and it's going to grow, as we're building an identity as a community college that offers STEM programs. Creating further momentum toward STEM-focused careers will undoubtedly shape our students' experiences and their professional trajectories for the long term."
Rajaa Shindi is a part-time faculty member and database developer at DACC, and serves as one of the college's iPASS project leads.
Kristi DePaul of Founders Marketing provides editorial support and regular contributions to the Transforming Higher Ed column of EDUCAUSE Review on issues of teaching, learning, and edtech.
© 2018 Rajaa Shindi and Kristi DePaul. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.