What do the following jobs have in common?
▪ Mechatronics technician
▪ Surgical technologist
▪ Car mechanic or technician
They are potentially lucrative careers with solid job outlooks — and the highest level of education required is an associate’s degree, only two years of college. Plus, they often are overlooked as job possibilities.
But by changing the way we view the STEM subjects of science, technology, math and engineering — making them more inclusive and more accessible and more relatable to more students in more ways — we can close the achievement gap and, as a result, close the wage gap.
That’s the main message Cindy Moss, the senior director of global STEM initiatives for Discovery Education, delivered during her keynote address to approximately 220 educators at the inaugural Phenix City STEMposium last week in the Courtyard by Marriott Riverfront hotel.
The salary figures Moss cited during her presentation were gleaned from conversations she had with employers in Charlotte, where she was STEM education director. So the Ledger-Enquirer also is reporting national figures for each career.
Mechatronics combines mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science.
“If you know a kid who likes to play video games and take things apart,” Moss said, “those are the skills they need to go into this. … After a two-year program, you start between $75,000 and $85,000 a year (in Charlotte).”
The average U.S. salary for a mechatronics technician, according to SalaryExpert.com, is $43,493 for an entry-level job and $100,995 for a senior-level job.
Energy companies would rather hire somebody with a two-year degree in mechatronics than somebody with a four-year degree in electrical engineering, Moss said, because the former immediately can make a positive impact and the latter requires six months to a year of training “before they can do anything worthwhile. That’s what they tell us.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t forecast an outlook for mechatronics technicians, but it predicts jobs for mechanical engineers will grow 5 percent from 2014-24 while jobs for electronics engineers will decrease by 1 percent.
Moss said she asked officials at the 22 hospitals in Charlotte which hospital jobs can be filled by somebody with less than two years of college. They told her that the best way to quickly get into the medical field is to be a surgical technologist.
A surgical technologist prepares the operating room, passes instruments, fluids and supplies to the surgeon and maintains equipment. The average U.S. salary for a surgical technologist is $45,797, according to SalaryExpert.com, ranging from $36,433 for an entry-level job to $54,439 for a senior-level job. Moss, however, said Charlotte hospital officials told her that their surgical technologists start at $55,000.
“Once you get in, the hospital will pay for you to do other things,” she said. “You can go two more years and be a radiation technician and run MRIs, run mammograms, and you start between $90,000 and $95,000 a year.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs for surgical technologists will grow by 15 percent from 2014-24.
Car mechanic or technician
Moss said NASCAR officials in Charlotte told her they not only want more “people of color” to follow stock car racing to expand their fan base, “they also want more people of color to work there” to further diversify their workforce.
She told them, “I’ve got the people you’re trying to get. What kind of skills do they need to come work for you?”
They told her, she said, “All you need is one semester of community college, two math and two science classes, and a portfolio of evidence that shows that you can work with other people and you can solve problems. And you start at $75,000 a year.”
That meshes with the figures at SalaryGenius.com, which reports the average salary for a NASCAR mechanic is $89,250, ranging from $58,800 to $126,000.
But car mechanics and technicians don’t have to work in NASCAR to receive a good starting salary. I-CAR, the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair, offers certification that “takes four weeks, costs $1,000, and 99 percent of students pass the test the first time, then they start at $55,000 a year,” Moss said.
The average I-CAR certified technician, according to I-CAR.com, earns $53,000 and 20 percent of them earn at least $70,000.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs for automotive service technicians and mechanics will grow by 5 percent from 2014-24.
Moss prefers different definitions for STEM and STEAM.
“We want every kid, pre-K-12, to have these skills they need to be successful in their world,” Moss said. “Because we want it to be inclusive, our acronym for STEM is Students and Teachers Energizing Minds, because it’s so much more than science, technology, engineering and math. And if your school wants to call it STEAM (adding the arts), we say Students and Teachers Energizing Active Minds.”
Moss emphasized the importance of motivating girls to become STEM women.
“In the U.S. right now, women make up about 50 percent of the workforce, which is totally expected,” she said. “In STEM, it’s less than 20 percent, and when you get into IT, it’s like 6 or 7 percent.”
An approach to solving this gender gap, Moss suggested, is appealing to this inclination:
“As females, we’re born wanting to make the world a better place,” she said. “That’s why so many of us become teachers and nurses. We want to help people. So I think the only people who can solve this are those of us in pre-K-12. We need to show the girls while they’re in pre-K-12 that if you have these problem-solving skills, you really can make the world a better place. You can get a good job, and you can help people while you’re doing it.”
In the U.S., women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn with the same education and experience. “To put it bluntly, that just pisses me off,” Moss said. “It’s just wrong.”
The only sector that doesn’t have such an income inequity is STEM, where women earn 98-99 cents for every dollar men earn, Moss said.
Elementary and secondary schools also must help minority students understand that “people who look like them” can succeed in STEM careers, Moss said.
Making it a priority
STEM education won’t improve unless educators and legislators make it a priority, Moss noted.
“Kids need coding skills,” she said.
A couple years ago, she said, the queen of England decided the way the British would take over the world again is through computer coding. This will be the third school year every student pre-K through 12th grade studies computer coding at least 1 hour per school day, Moss said.
“We can’t give these skills to the kids; we have to give them the time to develop them,” she said.
To that end, British computer scientists in 2012 launched something called the Raspberry Pi. It’s a $35 hard drive that plugs into an old monitor and keyboard. It has Scratch built in, the same computer code they use at MIT and Cal Tech, Moss said.
“If you have a kid of your own and they’re bored this summer, I would order them one of these,” Moss said. “… I’ve given it to kids as young as 5. They go to YouTube, find a video about how to put it together. They go to code.org and start coding.”
Her church adopted a high-poverty middle school 10 years ago. They run a summer STEM camp for every rising sixth-grader. The students are given a Raspberry Pi, and they have three weeks to create a computer game.
“We want them to understand you shouldn’t just be able to buy technology and use technology; you need to be able to create technology,” Moss said.
Last summer, the teacher called Moss and told her about a boy in the STEM camp who created a computer game in one day. Moss asked the boy to create an app to help sixth-graders with math. He just finished seventh grade, and that app is on target to earn him three-quarters of a million dollars this year, she said, despite the boy being raised by a single mother working 60 hours per week while taking care of five children.
“Now, she has a financial planner, a house, a car, and their life is different because of her son,” Moss told the educators attending the STEMposium. “And I know you have kids like that in your school district.”
According to ChangeTheEquation.org, which promotes STEM education, 50 percent of U.S. jobs are in STEM fields now, Moss said, and 75 percent of them will be in STEM fields within the next 10 years. “So, no matter what kids want to do,” she said, “they’re going to need these skills.”
But the instruction must be hands-on, Moss said.
“The brain research says that when you touch things you’re using 40 percent of your brain,” she said. “That’s the most you’ll ever use. So when we’re doing STEM, there needs to be hands-on inquiry and cyber inquiry. There needs to be connections to the real world, because those kids have great fake meters.”
STEM education produces students adept at the four Cs sought by employers, Moss said: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.
For example, “If you have your third-graders try to figure out how do we bring clean water to the world, while they’re doing that, they’re going to do reading, math, science and social studies,” she said. “And they’re going to use music, art, drama, dance and technology to communicate what they’ve learned.”
STEM education can help eliminate the achievement gap, Moss said. So if it’s implemented in the early grades and emboldens disadvantaged students to pursue such careers, she said, “they’re going to be set for life. If you wait too long, it will never happen.”