America's education system received some sobering news last week with the release of the latest Program for International Student Assessment report. Out of the 34 participating countries, American students finished near the back of the pack in the critical subjects of math and science – ranking 26th and 21st, respectively.
According to the survey, one in four American students failed to reach the baseline level of proficiency in math. Further, American students struggled to demonstrate the ability to transfer mathematical skills into real-world situations and real-world problem solving.
This is not just an education problem; it is a sweeping economic challenge.
Increasing demand for a skilled workforce
Math scores from the American teenagers that were tested as part of the global survey fared about as well as their counterparts from Lithuania and the Slovak Republic – not countries usually associated with competing against the United States for the future of high-skilled workers.
This trend is a challenge for American companies, the future of America's workforce, and our national economy. In order to stay competitive in the global marketplace, American workers must be equipped with the critical science, technology, engineering and math skills, commonly known as STEM skills.
The "skills gap" is not just a problem for the future. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, 60% of U.S. employers have had difficulties finding qualified workers to fill vacancies at their companies – a troubling statistic in the age of high unemployment.
Over the coming decades the need for STEM educated and trained workers is only going to increase. According to STEM Advantage, in the next 10 years STEM related job opportunities will increase by nearly 17%. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also forecasts that 15 of the 20 fastest-growing job opportunities in 2014 will require math or science skills.
Improving STEM education and increasing the skills of our national workforce are critical issues for the future of the American economy. While there has been an increase in attention and resources devoted to solving this challenge in the last few years, there is still much work to do.
Chevron investing in STEM education
Chevron has invested nearly $100 million in improving education over the past three years. This is a sizable commitment, even for a company ranked 11th on the latest Forbes Global 500 list. As California's largest company, Chevron has a vested stake in ensuring that the future workforce will have the education and skills that their diverse business portfolio demands.
Over the last two years, STEM education programming funded by Chevron in California has reached more than 500,000 students, and over 6,500 educators. They have also funded professional development programs for nearly 1,000 teachers, expanding STEM education across a state with over 6 million students.
Chevron has also partnered with non-profits such as STEM Connector to expand their reach across the national education spectrum. They are helping to introduce new STEM-based curriculum, while launching 100 new STEM programs for public schools. Chevron is also creating thousands of new opportunities for students to increase their STEM knowledge and purse STEM skilled careers through scholarships and technology in the classroom.
ExxonMobil promoting math and science
Since 2007, ExxonMobil has been a founding sponsor of the National Math and Science Initiative. The Texas-based corporation, which ranks as the world's third largest company, committed $125 million to improve math and science education in America. The National Math and Science Initiative implements education programming in 29 states, and has trained more than 60,000 teachers in advanced math and science subjects across the country.
Thanks in part to the founding gift from ExxonMobil, this initiative will help improve the math and science skills of nearly 4 million American students.
ExxonMobil has also partnered with golfer Phil Mickelson to create the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy. Each summer, this academy hosts over 500 elementary school teachers from across the country to participate in math and science training courses. The academy has helped build capacity for over 4,000 teachers, reaching over 230,000 students nationwide.
What does this mean for the national economy?
Both Chevron and ExxonMobil are making serious investments to increase the pool of high-skilled job applicants our country produces. There is a common sense reason for them to make this investment -- it is companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil that truly need STEM skilled employees to make their companies go.
In addition to filling the jobs of today and tomorrow at American companies, increasing STEM education and skills will also bring widespread benefits to the national economy. According to Harvard University researchers, increasing American math skills to the level found in countries such as Canada could increase the annual national income by $75 trillion over the next 80 years.
That's a big deal.
This is because workers in STEM skilled positions consistently earn as much as 26% more than employees in non-STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration. Researchers from Georgetown University also discovered that when measured by income earned, 8 of the top 10 college majors were in STEM fields.
Increasing STEM education in America is a win-win-win proposition. It is a win for American companies who need these skillsets to run their complex businesses and compete in a global economy. It is a win for the American workforce as good paying jobs will be created, and will be available for the workers with the required skills. Finally, it is a win for our national economy, spurring job creation and broad-based economic growth.
While Chevron and ExxonMobil each have their fair share of criticisms and controversies, on this issue they have found the right path that allows them to do good for the future of their companies, while also doing good for the future of America.
Fool contributor Jeffrey Pelletier has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Chevron. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.