The bills aim to boost women, veterans and others under-represented in tech fields.
House lawmakers wrapped up the year by passing three bills aimed at strengthening government programs for people hoping to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
As both the government and the private sector struggle to fill STEM positions with top talent, the bipartisan legislation would support education and training initiatives for women, veterans and other groups who are historically underrepresented in STEM fields.
“The size and skill of our STEM workforce will be the most important determinant of our global economic competitiveness for decades to come,” wrote Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, in an op-ed published by The Hill. “Unfortunately the U.S. is near the bottom of developed nations in STEM education.”
The STEM Research and Education Effectiveness and Transparency Act passed on Dec. 18 would require the National Science Foundation to fill in Congress on its efforts to get more women and other historically underrepresented groups to participate in federal research and education programs. It would also mandate science agencies collect, analyze and report data on the effectiveness of research and development grants to universities and federal laboratories.
Lawmakers also approved the Women in Aerospace Education Act, which would help bring more women into fellowship programs at NASA and national laboratories, and the Supporting Veterans in STEM Careers Act, which aims to open up more opportunities for veterans to pursue jobs in STEM.
The trio of bills came as part of the congressional “Science Day” organized by Smith to “highlight the importance of research and discovery today and every day.” All three have been referred to the Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation committee.
The recent legislation represents the latest push by Congress to bolster America’s STEM workforce. With the Labor Department predicting that roughly 2.5 million STEM-related positions will go unfilled next year, it’s crucial for the government to ensure funding for STEM training and education are spent as efficiently as possible, Smith wrote.
The government specifically has found itself with a surplus of vacant technology jobs and a lack of qualified applicants to fill them. The talent gap is particularly stark in relation to age and gender.
In September 2017, men held more than 72 percent of government IT positions, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management. At the same time, federal agencies also employed roughly 4.5 IT specialists age 60 and over for every one employee under the age of 30.
Officials have started recognizing the importance of building a pipeline to bring in the young employees who will become future leaders in federal tech, said Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, in a conversation with Nextgov.
“The technological changes that we’ll see in the next 20 years will make the last 20 years look insignificant,” he said. “Bringing in digital natives and people that have been trained in the latest, greatest tactics, techniques and procedures … that’s valuable.”