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Nation's CEOs: Skills gap is real and costly. Students today must have STEM fluency.

A new survey of CEOs of major U.S. corporations released today reveals deep concerns over lagging U.S. science and math skills. Nearly 98 percent  of the CEOs reported the skills gap hurts their business.

To mark the release of the survey, four CEOs participated in a panel where they shared their perspectives and experiences.

Eric Spiegel, president & CEO of Siemens Corporation, talked about the recent challenges in staffing a new gas turbine plant in Charlotte, a city chosen because of its manufacturing history. Yet, Spiegel said finding a thousand qualified workers to staff the new facility was difficult.

Siemens received 10,000 applications and considered 6,000 of them, said Spiegel. Applicants were given tests in math, reading and basic technology.

Only a third passed, he said.

That third still required training, but no area community colleges were teaching the advanced manufacturing skills essential to running plants that rely on automation, robotics and software, said Spiegel.

Siemens sent local North Carolina professors to Germany to learn advanced manufacturing and machine tooling and then created training programs in Charlotte community colleges.

Spiegel said his company is now developing the apprenticeship programs standard in Germany where students train and work while still in high school.

Even though the jobs pay more than $50,000 a year, Spiegel said parents and schools in Charlotte were leery initially of manufacturing for their students. Siemens had to explain these jobs promised secure futures and good incomes, he said.

Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., said his company employs thousands of IT staffers and math and science Ph.Ds. "We have more programmers than Google, I’m told," said Dimon. "Even our tellers in our branches -- we have 15,000 tellers -- need basic math."

The skills gap is not just about math and science, said Maggie Wilderotter, chairman and CEO of Frontier Communications. “It’s about what it takes to work in the workforce. We also have to train all employees coming out of education system about what it is like to work in a company and responsibilities that come with that. And in basic literacy."

The CEOs endorsed the Common Core State Standards as a vital step in the effort to improve the academic skills of American students.

"We are big advocates of Common Core, " said Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation. Citing the political strife around Common Core, Tillerson said it's fine if school districts and states want to rebrand the standards as a compromise gesture, but there must be shared standards and assessments so student performance can be judged across states.

Tillerson said the U.S. Department of Education has a responsibility to promote national standards, while states have the responsibility to design a curriculum to deliver those standards.

The political battle over Common Core frustrated Tillerson.  "It is utterly disappointing for me to see the political debate about something so important," he said.

Among other findings in the survey:

  • CEOs say the skills gap is real and hurts business. Nearly 98 percent of CEOs say that the skills gap is a problem for their companies.
  • Most open jobs require STEM knowledge and skills. Approximately 60 percent of job openings require basic STEM literacy and 42 percent require advanced STEM knowledge. Nearly two-thirds of job openings that require STEM skills are in manufacturing and other services.
  • The biggest skills gaps are in advanced computer and quantitative knowledge. 62 percent of CEOs report problems finding qualified applicants for jobs requiring advanced computer/IT knowledge, and 41 percent report problems for jobs requiring advanced quantitative knowledge.
  • Many job candidates lack basic STEM skills. 38 percent of respondents say that at least half of their entry-level applicants lack basic STEM literacy. 28 percent say that at least half of their new entry-level hires lack basic STEM literacy.
  • STEM skills are a ticket to jobs. Over the next five years, employers expect to replace nearly a million employees needing basic STEM literacy and more than 600,000 employees needing advanced STEM knowledge.



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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.