Is Florida doing STEM yet? CareerSource Florida says “yes!” I’m not so sure.

In a Naples Daily News op-ed, CareerSource Florida President and CEO Michelle Dennard talked about the strategies that our state is adopting to address the “talent gap” that occurs in many STEM fields and the national recognition the state is receiving for its efforts.

Ms. Dennard’s account of Florida’s efforts is impressively long:

Here in Florida, employers are collaborating with workforce development, economic development and educational entities to bridge skills gaps through the expansion of apprenticeships in STEM-related fields. Florida is among 36 states recently selected to help the National Office of Apprenticeship within the U.S. Department of Labor meet its goal of doubling and diversifying the number of apprenticeships by 2019.

CareerSource Florida is integrating apprenticeships into our statewide sector strategies initiative to enable us to meet the talent demands of tomorrow and support state and local economic growth today. A strong focus on STEM-related education and career pathways, including expanded apprenticeship opportunities, will help ensure our next generation of employees is motivated and ready to meet current and future business needs.

Individual initiatives have formed around the state to develop new apprenticeship programs that will grow our STEM talent. In Collier County, CareerSource Southwest Florida, Immokalee Technical College (iTech), Arthrex and FutureMakers Coalition are currently collaborating on a machining program to strengthen education/business partnerships as well as establish career pathways with a road to self-sufficiency for job seekers.

I am all for apprenticeships, especially for those STEM careers that do not require a bachelor’s degree.  But according to Burning Glass (among others), 75% of STEM jobs require a bachelor’s degree.  And STEM bachelors’ degrees generally require lots of math (often including calculus and differential equations) and lots of science, including chemistry and physics.  It is important to note – especially for policy-level people like Ms. Dennard – that enrollments in chemistry and physics courses in Florida’s public high schools are declining.  As of 2015, Florida enrolled public high school students in physics at a rate approximately half the national rate, and our state’s physics numbers have declined since then.  Florida’s calculus enrollment numbers are unimpressive compared to national rates, even though the state provides financial incentives to schools and teachers that have students pass Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge exams in those subjects (as well as in science subjects).

So what Ms. Dennard needs to add to her agenda is a program to attract many, many more strong math and science teachers to Florida’s public high schools.  Apprenticeships are lovely – except when they are used as excuses to avoid addressing the hard questions about the health of the state’s instructional programs in math and science.

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