Qualified to Compete: A New Approach to Credentials

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Americans are not equipped with the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills that they need to succeed in the face of technological change. Although the United States used to lead globally in STEM skills, it now ranks 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. Only 36 percent of high school students are prepared for college-level science courses, and only about a third of U.S. students believe they will graduate with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the job market and workplace.

The concerns in the United States about the national security implications of technological competitiveness are well-founded. Chinese President Xi has publicly stated his ambitions for China’s technological dominance by 2025. The Chinese Communist Party has continued its illiberal use of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) for mass surveillance, data collection, and furthering its military objectives. China is also producing more STEM graduates, which could ensure that Beijing outpaces the United States, and carves out a competitive advantage in research that drives technological development in key areas, such as advanced manufacturing and space-related technologies.

The United States recently issued severe export controls on advanced-node semiconductors to slow down China’s technological development and protect U.S. national security interests. One of the most noteworthy aspects of these export controls was the targeting of technical know-how. Indeed, by restricting U.S. persons from supporting the development or production of semiconductors in China, the export controls reinforced the foundational role individuals have played in making America one of the most innovative countries in the world. Yet while the United States has finally acknowledged that a skilled workforce is key to maintaining technological competitiveness, it has failed to harness the potential of its people. 

 

 

Securing technological competitiveness is a top priority for the United States and, for the first time since World War II, Congress is leveraging large-scale industrial policy to support these objectives. The CHIPS and Science Act appropriated over $52 billion to revitalize advanced semiconductor manufacturing in the United States. This legislation was passed by Congress to address national security-related supply chain concerns. These included China’s focus on chip manufacturing and the potential for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, where over 90 percent of the world’s advanced chips are currently manufactured.

The United States has not updated its STEM education strategy since 2018, despite how the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted critical technology supply chain vulnerabilities, underscored the importance of driving biotechnology and other emerging technology sector research, and ushered in a new era of remote work. This presents an opportunity for the United States to rethink its approach to credentialing, shifting from an emphasis on four-year degrees to more flexible upskilling methods that promote continuous learning.

The Approach to STEM Has Run Out of Steam

The STEM skill gap among the domestic workforce poses direct risks to U.S. national security interests. The Fiscal Year 2020 U.S. Department of Defense Industrial Capabilities Report notes that “as of 2017, American students make up barely 21 percent of the computer science student body and 19 percent of electrical engineering majors among our nation’s universities.” The lack of software engineering talent, coupled with a shortage of U.S. citizens who have electrical engineering Ph. D.s, creates vulnerabilities for the United States in the defense innovation base, where finding skilled individuals with security clearances is challenging. 

The Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act recognized that the U.S. government, and especially the Defense Department, needs a strong STEM workforce to stay ahead technologically for future conflicts. Congress has included several provisions in recent defense appropriations to support STEM workforce development. These range from a reporting requirement on digital technical skills in Fiscal Year 2022 to expanding defense industry workforce development programs — including those that are innovative and lab-based — in Fiscal Year 2023. The Department has also focused on workforce development in the face of technological change for both military and civilian talent. However, these are long-term solutions to rapidly evolving problems.

The gap in computer science skills, specifically, comes at a time when the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that computer-related occupations, such as information security analysts and software developers, will grow three times as fast as most other STEM occupations and create more than 500,000 new jobs during the decade. The Ronald Reagan Institute shows how ill-prepared the United States is to seize this economic boom, giving the United States a D+ for talent base — the lowest grade on its National Security Innovation Base Report Card. The Institute recommends that the United States “scale up workforce development programs to increase domestic STEM output and skilled trades.” 

While the United States has benefitted from a vibrant foreign talent base, U.S. industry will continue to face talent shortages compared to China, which has a population that is four times the size of the United States. This means China can graduate more STEM field students than the United States can. A 2021 Center for Security and Emerging Technology report estimates that China will produce almost double the number of U.S. STEM Ph. D.s by 2025. Therefore, the United States must simultaneously focus on cultivating its own talent pool to not only compete with China, but also to maintain technological leadership for decades to come.

To do this, the United States must not only improve its STEM pipeline, but also reframe the STEM worker production problem. The United States has historically maintained a bias towards four-year university degrees. President Obama repeatedly emphasized how 60 percent of occupations would require a college degree. But given that in 2021, 62 percent of the U.S. population above 25 years old did not have a Bachelor of Arts, it is clear that obtaining a four-year degree cannot remain the only viable path to success. With many states already beginning to remove degree requirements for positions, the United States can seize this moment and harness the roughly 200 million individuals considered working age, including those without college degrees. This pool of people includes 27 million Americans who are untapped talent and therefore could extend prospects for well-paying jobs to veterans, caregivers, relocating partners and spouses, and less-advantaged populations.

Instead of focusing on traditional degrees, the United States should offer a new approach to credentialing that emphasizes continuous learning and offers individuals upskilling opportunities at any point in their academic and professional journey. To stay ahead of China, which has prioritized its domestic talent pool by largely focusing on STEM education, the United States should pursue a technology workforce strategy focused on three key credentialing methods: micro-credentialing, apprenticeships, and dual enrollment. These three methods are particularly effective for capturing and developing talent because they quickly and inexpensively teach new skills, provide hands-on experience for students, maximize scarce educational resources, and address deficiencies in the United States’ current approach to STEM education. A new approach to credentialing would enable the domestic workforce to adjust to technological changes without fear of their skills becoming obsolete. This is especially important as AI is adopted more widely, which some estimates suggest could replace 300 million jobs.

 

 

Why the United States Needs a New Approach to Credentialing to Win the Talent Competition

A new approach to credentialing would ingrain into the workforce the resilience needed to compete with China while giving workers confidence in the relevance of their jobs and abilities. China has focused on cultivating its domestic talent pool through STEM education for over two decades. In 2001, the Chinese Communist Party implemented curriculum reform for science education throughout K-12 and for specific subjects, such as physics and biology. China’s Ninth Five-Year Plan then made education a priority, with its budget comprising over 4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2015. Now, as China continues implementing its 2029 Action Plan for STEM education, it is leveraging STEM to directly drive the country’s economic growth. All of these steps are captured in President Xi’s 2021 public statement about the need for science and tech professionals: “At the end of the day, the country’s overall competitiveness is the competitiveness of its skilled personnel … National development depends on talent, and national rejuvenation depends on talent.”

China’s STEM pipeline efforts are impressive. The Chinese government also knows it must make these investments because it struggles to attract talent, either from local graduates or from abroad. To address this, the Chinese government has offered incentives such as high salaries, housing support, and signing bonuses to Chinese nationals studying overseas to return home. China’s primary program is the Thousand Talents Plan, which targets early-career students that receive doctorates in STEM fields. While China has surpassed its initial recruitment goal of 2,000 people within ten years, the country’s most talented researchers still often move and stay abroad.

Micro-credentialing

The trend lines for U.S. technological leadership are concerning, as China has positioned itself to move from an imitator to an innovator by 2035. Recognizing China’s strategy of focusing on STEM education and the United States’ own weaknesses in this space, maintaining the U.S. technological advantage requires the United States to adopt a more flexible strategy other than simply requiring four-year degrees.

A new approach to credentialing that emphasizes micro-credentialing, apprenticeships, and dual enrollment will enable the United States to stay ahead in technological development. Micro-credentialing offers specialized tracks that build, bolster, or level-set specific competencies. For example, universities such as Florida International University offer micro-credentials in over 30 different disciplines. Depending on the topic, a credential can be earned over the course of a few weeks or after multiple semesters of instruction. These micro-credentialing courses can be taken at any point in an individual’s life. They are increasingly attractive options for career development during or after a four-year degree, or in lieu of one. Employers are increasingly valuing alternative learning methods that can directly meet their demands, such as massive online open course providers like Coursera and LinkedIn Learning, and corporate training portals. Some companies have even gone a step further to upskill their workforce. For example, Google launched its six-month “Google Career Certificate” to better prepare individuals for their jobs, and IBM committed to skilling 30 million people globally by 2030.

Considering 85 percent of STEM jobs are expected to come into existence by 2030, micro-credentialing can set individuals up for success by enabling them to pivot their careers or build new skills quickly. Additionally, micro-credentialing is a well-suited option for individuals experiencing tech sector layoffs as they assume new roles within their industry or increasingly shift to new ones that align with their passions.

Apprenticeships

Previous Democratic administrations had strongly advocated four-year university degrees. In contrast, President Biden has emphasized alternative paths for specialized training, including apprenticeships. A recent example concerns semiconductor technician positions, which have become the Biden administration’s exemplar of high-paying jobs that do not require degrees. The Chinese government recognized this long ago. Beginning in 1999, the Chinese government focused on bolstering vocational schools to meet the demands of the labor market. Specifically, they began to train a new cadre of technicians and cultivate transferable skills — placing equal weight on the value of these programs as on diplomas.

Instead of pushing college, which is becoming less attractive to individuals due to factors such as student loan debt and career readiness, the Biden administration has specifically highlighted and bolstered funding for apprenticeship programs to overcome critical talent shortages like in the semiconductor industry or cybersecurity, where there is a deficit of 700,000 workers. State governments have also recognized the value of these programs. Former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, for example, advocated for federal and state governments to expand apprenticeship programs in industries such as cybersecurity, healthcare, and other skilled trades.

These opportunities, however, are often primarily discussed for trade jobs. To maximize apprenticeship programs, U.S. policymakers should apply this same model to building core STEM skills for entry-level positions. Likewise, apprenticeships can be a vehicle for work-based learning during K-12 schooling. This approach could better prepare students by incrementally building on-the-job training into student schedules either during the day or outside school hours. 

A key benefit of apprenticeships is how they cultivate soft skills, which include communication, teamwork, and other interpersonal abilities. Soft skills lay the groundwork for an individual’s success in the workplace in terms of their ability to adapt, interact with colleagues, and be proactive problem solvers. They also enable students to rise to managerial roles in their organizations, which are as important as the technical expertise that the United States seeks to build.

While companies such as Google have taken the lead on creating and supporting tech apprenticeship programs, the U.S. government can play an important role in promoting these opportunities as career enhancers and ensuring they are expanded for critical STEM skills.

Dual Enrollment

Dual enrollment for high school students who wish to take specialized university courses could help overcome a key weakness in the education pipeline: the lack of qualified teachers for specialized training. Despite the focus China has placed on STEM education, Beijing similarly suffers from shortages of qualified science teachers. 80.5 percent of teachers in China receive inadequate training for teaching STEM subjects. Similarly, in the United States, teachers often do not have the requisite knowledge or technical skills to teach across subject areas, especially in elementary education. 

Dual enrollment would enable the United States to get ahead of China by upskilling its talent pool while maximizing its resources for higher education. A more specialized curriculum would require further teacher specialization. This could lead to the further narrowing of the talent pool for qualified teachers at a time when around 52,000 teacher jobs are unfilled and about five percent of current teachers nationally are considered “underqualified.” Dual enrollment would remove the pressure from teachers to further specialize. Students could, instead, take courses with subject matter experts and acquire college-level training earlier on. In addition to cultivating skills earlier, dual enrollment exposes those who will not pursue a four-year degree to more rigorous STEM training. 

Implementing a New Approach to Credentialing

The United States has what it needs to implement a new approach to credentialing. In addition to having existing programs relating to each of the three methods, the federal government, state governments, and private sector have all called for change, creating a sense of urgency. While a new approach to credentialing will take time to implement, there are four immediate actions the U.S. government should take. 

The White House should update its STEM education strategy. This is an opportunity to articulate a new approach to credentialing, including the need for more resources to expand the quality and reach of each of the three methods — micro-credentials, apprenticeships, and dual enrollment opportunities.

Congress should create a national technology apprenticeship program that is administered at the state level. Building on the work of the Registered Apprenticeship Program, the current Congress should create a dedicated national technology apprenticeship program to address the requirement of hands-on experience, make candidates more competitive, and ease candidates’ transition into technical roles that build new technologies, such as software engineering. Those who participate in the technology apprenticeship program would be paid, with funding for this program facilitated by cost-sharing agreements between states that participate and companies who agree to host apprentices. Administering this program at the state level would help close the gap between students who are fortunate enough to receive internship opportunities and those who cannot afford to participate — or may never hear about the opportunity. When promoting this apprenticeship program, the government should make clear that the opportunity is growth for students that will guarantee a job at the appropriate experience level.

Congress should also create a funding pool that invests in technological solutions that fill critical STEM skill gaps. The key to a successful new credentialing approach is accessibility. This approach could help develop new student skill sets and help new tools to identify new skills. For example, to build skills, funds could be allocated to expanding online courses and immersive learning opportunities leveraging augmented reality/virtual reality. To identify skills, states could invest in building digital credential systems, which broaden the talent pool by providing a holistic picture of candidate skills, rather than assessing candidates based on presumptions about specific positions. Funding could also go towards exploring programs like the Defense Innovation Unit’s GigEagle program, which uses AI to match individual skill profiles to short-term projects.

Congress should also initiate a study on the future of blue-collar jobs to ensure workers are not left behind during technology transitions. As younger “blue-collar” workers — those considered working class — seek “new collar” opportunities that require specialized skills but not necessarily four-year degrees, it is important that older, less tech-savvy workers are not left behind. Congress should mandate a study to assess the future of blue-collar work to help identify expectations for workers who will be displaced or replaced by new technologies. This study would help inform policy decision-making to ensure that these workers continue to feel valued rather than overlooked during technology transitions.

The United States can seize this opportunity to maintain its lead in the technological competition by investing in its people. As China continues to invest in its STEM education pipeline, the United States must shift from reliance on four-year degrees and build a domestic talent pool that can adapt quickly and successfully to technological change. 

 

 

Alexandra Seymour was previously an Associate Fellow for the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Her work focused on artificial intelligence (AI), defense innovation, semiconductors, 5G/6G, and workforce issues. Prior, Seymour was Chief of Staff at CalypsoAI, an AI security startup. She also served in the Pentagon as Speechwriter to the Deputy Secretary of Defense and in OSD(Policy), as well as on the National Security Council. Seymour’s analysis and commentary have appeared in publications such as The Financial Times, BBC News, WIRED, USA Today, The Hill, DefenseScoop, The Diplomat, RealClearPolicy, National Journal, South China Morning Post, and Voice of America, and she has made media appearances on CBS News and NewsNation, among other outlets. Seymour is also a Visiting Fellow at the National Security Institute at George Mason University.

Image: NASA/Charles Beason

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