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STEM careers in a growth spurt
Despite an overall lacklustre job market, there are certain positions that go unfilled. Those are usually the ones that require strong skills in science, technology, engineering and math (commonly known as STEM). Simply put, not enough people are pursuing the growing STEM field, which often provides a stable job with a healthy pay cheque. In fact, STEM workers in the US earned about 70 per cent more than the national average in 2005, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics article STEM Occupations. “Every major group of STEM occupations enjoys overall median earnings that are above the national average.”
Part of the problem for the lack of STEM workers goes back to the school system where not enough students are taking sciences or math. According to the backgrounder for the Spotlight on Science Learning — A Benchmark of Canadian Talent report, fewer and fewer Canadian students are taking these subjects in grades 11 and 12, and a 2010 survey shows that 39 per cent of students say studying science won’t be important at all to their future careers.
Sometimes, though, that view can be short-sighted. For example, Judy Keffer is one such former high school student who mistakenly thought she would never need science. “I felt quite scared and uncomfortable around math and science so I didn’t pursue a career that would require that,” says Keffer. “I didn’t understand math. Science I was always interested in, but I didn’t have any confidence.” In her mid-forties Keffer found out she would indeed need STEM skills if she were going to pursue a new career as an acupuncturist. Now in the last year of a diploma program, she has completed such courses as anatomy and physiology, microbiology and immunology, and neuroanatomy. “My learning would have been much greater had I had a background [in science] or if I had taken a pre-course in anatomy or physiology,” she says.
Keffer is training to be part of the health care work force, which, although not technically considered part of the STEM field, uses a lot of the same skills (and, incidentally, is another segment of the labour market that is also growing). STEM competencies are also needed in other occupations considered to be outside of the field, such as the skilled trades and technical sales positions.
STEM jobs might be a particularly good fit for those who are logical thinkers and problem solvers. As the acronym implies, “pure” STEM occupations include scientists, mathematicians, engineers, technicians and information technology professionals. But that’s a limited view of the sector; there’s a huge range of potential careers, many of which you can check out on the Science Buddies site, which offers career profiles on everything — from climate change analyst to nuclear monitoring technician to statistician.
To work at a STEM occupations you often need at least some post-secondary education and/or certification, though you don’t necessarily have to have a graduate degree. “The STEM supply problem goes beyond the need for more professional scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. We also need more qualified technicians and skilled STEM workers in advanced manufacturing, utilities and transportation, mining, and other technology-driven industries,” stresses the executive summary of a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce on STEM.
Although it is ideal for students to prepare for STEM careers by taking math and sciences in high school there is — as in Keffer’s case — still hope if you have long graduated and didn’t take this route. Many post-secondary schools offer preparatory programs, such as Humber’s General Arts and Science — Health, Science and Technology Profile program for students who want a career in the health sciences field but lack the required background. Centennial College also has a one-year Technology Foundations certificate program geared towards applicants who do not meet the regular entrance requirements for its engineering technology and applied science programs.
As well, community programs sometimes offer some interesting training options. For instance, MicroSkills provides IT programs (in network administration, web development, business analysis and application development) to women at all levels of education and skill, including those with little or no experience with computers.