A recent Gallup survey sheds light on Gen Z attitudes and exposure to STEM education, and how donors can factor this information into their giving decisions.
Currently, there are more than half a million open jobs in cybersecurity in the United States. Demand far outpaces supply. Unlike some other professions facing labor shortages, cybersecurity positions pay north of $100,000 a year. For young people, they should look like tickets to a financially stable future.
The cybersecurity job market is just one data point in a larger, longstanding trend. For decades, experts have asserted that the future of the workforce lies in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Educators have followed suit in emphasizing the importance of STEM in classrooms and curricula.
But here’s the peculiar thing: Gen Z students may have received this memo, but it does not appear to be influencing their career choices. These young people may be sensitive to matters of economic insecurity, but they exhibit a split personality regarding their future careers. While 75% claim an interest in STEM jobs or careers, only 29% list a STEM occupation as their first choice. Young people seems far less interested in pursuing STEM careers than employers are in hiring for them, and even basic exposure to STEM courses and careers varies widely across Gen Z demographics.
A recent Gallup survey reports on these and other issues, chronicling the voices of a nationally representative sample of over 2,000 Gen Z members born between 1997 and 2011. In shedding light on Gen Z attitudes and exposure to STEM education, this analysis provides information that donors should know if they are interested in strengthening STEM education and workforce participation among young people.
Contextualizing Concerns about K-12 STEM Education
The statistics concerning cybersecurity job openings points to the urgency underlying our preoccupation with STEM. For just as these unfilled positions put our nation’s businesses and institutions at risk, the history of efforts to strengthen STEM education and employment has always been linked with national security concerns. The federal government’s national focus on STEM education began nearly seventy years ago, triggered by the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the satellite Sputnik. This led many to believe that the USSR’s education and technological capabilities were superior to those of the U.S. STEM education became a national security issue, and Congress responded by passing the National Defense Education Act, signed into law in 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It provided federal funding to all levels of the U.S. education system, including K-12.
This link between STEM and national security became more pronounced in K-12 education with the 1983 national report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. It appeared when Japan’s economy was booming and many believed that its schools were outperforming U.S. schools. “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today,” the report thundered, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” The Commission report recommended creating new high school graduation requirements for students called the New Basics that included three years of mathematics, three years of science, and one-half year of computer science.
This K-12 focus on STEM continues today, motivated by talent competition, especially with China. Many groups are sounding the alarm. For example, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that Chinese students tested better in reading, math, and science than students in any other country. A report from the foreign policy U.S.-based Aspen Strategy Group comments that the “U.S. needs the national security community to weigh in on [K-12] education as a national security priority.” And a report from America’s National Science Foundation describes a specifically American problem, noting that the U.S. is challenged by “Disparities in K-12 STEM education and student performance across demographic and socioeconomic categories and geographic regions.” America is falling behind on STEM, apparently, and falling behind faster in some places and groups than in others.
Gen Z Voices on STEM
In the context of these national anxieties concerning the state of our STEM education, the Gallup Gen Z report offers many insights into Gen Z’s student STEM experiences and career aspirations. I organize these insights under two categories: Gen Z exposure to STEM courses and activities and Gen Z group differences. I also reference another Gallup report—on the importance of role models—as offering a way to alleviate some of the dilemmas the Gen Z report uncovers. Taken together, key findings here suggest a way forward for donors interested in bolstering American STEM education. Here are some of the key findings:
Students’ exposure to content and experiences. While Gen Z students and young adults believe their K-12 schools have taught them about STEM careers, many report they have not been exposed to basic content and experiences needed for many STEM jobs. For example, over eight in ten students (82%) say that their high school offered a variety of STEM classes for real-world applications in math and science, and over seven in ten (72%) say they had opportunities to participate in STEM extracurriculars. But far fewer have engaged in hands-on STEM classroom activities that underlie many STEM jobs, like building an electrical circuit (29%) or using technology like coding programs or robots (42%). Only about a third of Gen Z high schoolers report having learned about core STEM-related topics such as 3D design (31%), cybersecurity (23%), or hydraulics (32%).
STEM exposure is the key to STEM expertise. Gen Z students become more likely to pursue a STEM career as they are exposed to more STEM courses. For example, Gallup’s analysis compares students exposed in school to zero or one technology-related topic with those exposed to four or five technology-related topics. Those with more exposure are more than twice as likely to want a future STEM job; more than twice as likely to declare a college STEM major; and over five times as likely to be employed in a STEM role as their peers. Thus, limited exposure to foundational STEM concepts in school may be a leading factor contributing to the drop-off between students’ interest in STEM and their eventual pursuit of STEM jobs.
Gender gaps exist. Gen Z females (63%) are less interested than males (85%) in STEM fields, and this perceived difference potentially creates barriers that discourage Gen Z girls and women from STEM careers. For example, fewer middle and high school females (39%) than males (54%) report learning about STEM concepts such as computer programming and coding in coursework. Low confidence in STEM ability may play a role: Gen Z females are nearly 20 points more likely than males (57% versus 38%) to say they are not interested in a STEM career because they don’t think they would be good at it. In contrast, males are more likely to say they don’t know enough about STEM careers (29% versus 17%)—suggesting they feel held back by lack of experience, not lack of aptitude.
Racial discrepancies exist. Blacks are least likely (19%) to indicate their first career preference is a STEM job, while Asians are the most likely (40%). Blacks are also the least likely to be “very interested” (28%) in any type of STEM career regardless of their first preference, while Asian students are the ones to be most likely to be “very” or “somewhat interested” (94%). Again, these findings point to the role that social norms and expectations within communities play in encouraging or discouraging students from pursuing a STEM career.
Role models matter. In a separate survey, Gallup interviewed 3,972 working adults aged 18 to 40 to examine their experiences with career education and role models in middle and high school—including how role models affected these young adults’ career paths. 60% of these adults say they received little or no career education in their K-12 education—a number that increased to 70% for those in households that struggled financially. Among those who did receive career education, two of three (66%) rated it “fair” or “poor.” The presence or absence of mentors is reflected directly in career outcomes: 68% of young adults who had a successful career role model “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they had a positive career outcome. That affirmation of success fell to 51% among those who were neutral or disagreed that they had a successful career role model. And it plummeted to 28% among young adults growing up in a family that struggled to pay their bills. Finally, young adults are more likely to say they will be working in STEM fields if they have a career role model. This relationship holds across demographic groups, including women, Black and Hispanic students, and low-income students.
Looking Forward: What’s a Donor to Do?
STEM careers are not going to diminish in their importance to America’s economy or to the affluence of its citizens. It behooves us to care about this cornerstone of national health. Currently, the U.S. STEM labor force is 23% of the total labor force and involves workers at all education levels. According to a National Science Board 2019 report, fifty-five percent of STEM workers (nearly 20 million workers) do not have a bachelor’s degree. Of that majority, jobs are found primarily in health care (19%), construction trades (20%), installation, maintenance, and repair (21%), and production occupations (14%). Unemployment was lower among the STEM labor force (2%) compared to the non-STEM labor force (4%) in 2019, and this pattern continued during the COVID-19 pandemic. STEM workers had significantly higher median earnings ($55,000) than non-STEM workers ($33,000). And the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of STEM jobs will increase by almost 11% between 2022 and 2032. Donors need to ensure that Gen Z makes its contribution to ensuring the U.S. has those it needs to ensure opportunity for coming generations. Here are three places for donors to start:
1. Ask questions about course access and who takes STEM courses. There are many questions a donor could ask, based on the Gallup Gen Z findings, of those school districts or stand-alone programs that seek financial support. Does the school district or program seeking support expose young people to STEM courses and activities? If so, what courses and what kinds of activities? At what grade level (since the earlier young people are exposed to STEM education the more likely they are to develop an interest in it)? What information is collected on issues like course exposure and course taking and student academic outcomes? Are there group differences? Is this information collection used to improve program participation and effectiveness? These are only a few illustrations of questions that can be derived based on what Gallup has chronicled.
2. Seek out STEM information on “what works." The What Works Clearinghouse of the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences collects and evaluates education policies and programs, including information on STEM. Check out their non-technical STEM practice guides, which include practical tips and recommendations useful to practitioners and others. They are a way to learn more about the types of courses and activities that have proved effective in STEM education. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has a series of publications that examine and rate grade state mathematics and history standards. Look at these to see how your state ranks compared to other states in what it expects K-12 students to know about these disciplines. Finally, the Council of Chief State School Officers has a high-quality classroom instructional materials network. See what types of material they recommend and if your state is a member of that network.
3. Get mentors involved in career education. Young adults are more likely to be satisfied with their career if they had a mentor to inspire and guide them during their youth. These mentors are trustworthy and visible examples of success. They bring knowledge and expertise and can motivate young people to pursue and achieve STEM careers. They should be integrated into K-12 career education programs. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development has developed a pre-K-12 career education approach that includes this approach. It is based on a framework developed by David Turner that involves career exposure, exploration, and experience.
In one sense, concern about STEM education is a very old story. But it remains as pertinent as ever—especially when the labor market and education landscape are changing as rapidly as ours. Donors must look for ways to take a leading role in shoring up STEM education, using the information and resources at their disposal as a framework to guide giving.
Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor for the Walton Family Foundation education program and a former United States Assistant Secretary of Education for Policy. The Walton Family Foundation provided Gallup financial support to create the Gallup and Walton Family Foundation Gen Z Panel. It is one of the largest and most comprehensive national research panels to track Gen Z sentiment and behavior over time and is the basis for the data used in this article. It has the ability to compare Gen Z to generations before them and reveal how they are different.