Students have the talent to succeed in today’s in-demand jobs but often lack an interest in going into those fields, according to a new report that seeks to assess whether their skills are aligned with high-growth careers.
The report from YouScience, a for-profit company that provides aptitude-based assessments, comes as many industries in the United States grapple with labor shortages. Jobs in STEM fields are expected to grow twice as fast as those in non-STEM fields, but millions of positions in science, technology, engineering, and math careers are expected to go unfilled in the near future, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“This report [is] really coming out at the height of a skills gap,” said YouScience founder and CEO Edson Barton in an interview. “If we as a society don’t take a hold of that and really do something to fix that, then the problem … is just going to get worse and worse and worse.”
Others who study career development among students agree that there are often disconnects between workforce skills and students’ ambitions. But they also caution against overemphasizing the results of aptitude tests and career interest surveys as gauges of student potential.
YouScience found that student aptitude is higher than interest in what the company calls “key national career clusters,” or industries where significant job growth is forecast. The report found that students have:
- Nearly 5 times the aptitude for energy careers than they do interest in those fields;
- More than 3 times the aptitude for advanced manufacturing careers than they have interest;
- Over 2 times the aptitude for computer technology careers than they have interest; and
- Almost 2 times the aptitude for health science careers than they do interest.
The report is based on an analysis of anonymized data from YouScience’s aptitude assessment taken by 239,843 U.S. high school students in 2021. The assessment uses brain games to measure students’ skills in areas such as numerical reasoning, sequential thought process, and idea generation.
At the end of the test, students get a chart that shows them what their dominant and nondominant aptitudes are.
The problem isn’t that the U.S. doesn’t have talented people to fill these roles, but rather students are not aware that these careers exist, the report contends.
“If we can show them that [they have the talent], then they naturally, by themselves, start to select going into those fields at much higher rates,” Barton said. “They just didn’t know that they could or that they should go into those fields.”
These results show that the U.S. is doing “a really poor job” of helping students “find and explore what they’re truly good at, and then helping them get into the pathway that’s meaningful to them,” he said.
While aptitude tests and career interest surveys are helpful in giving students an idea of the career opportunities available, it’s important to remember that the results are just “one piece of a very complicated collection of puzzle pieces that young people need access to,” said Kyle Hartung, associate vice president at nonprofit Jobs for the Future.
These tests are “effective” when they’re used as one way to help young people “understand who they are in relation to the type of career and professional life they’d like to have,” Hartung said.
“It’s dangerous when we overemphasize” the results because students are still developing cognitively and emotionally through their teen years, he added.
Kimberly Green, executive director of Advance CTE, a nonprofit that represents state career-technical education directors, said the results show that there is still a lot of work to be done in making sure students are aware of the array of fields that are available to them.
“We need to continue to do the work of strengthening our career advising and CTE systems to give students that real-world experience with the world of work and broaden their horizons,” Green said. “By doing that, we can hopefully close some of those skill gaps and further diversify our talent pipeline.”
Start career exploration early
To help close the gap between aptitude and career interests, YouScience recommends that policymakers, educators, and parents help students find their “why” so that their education will become more applicable, close the career exposure gap, and use career-connected learning.
Once students have an idea of their aptitudes and interests, experts say there should be a way for them to explore those options and make sense of their experiences. Career exploration could look like a rotation through different occupations in a specific industry, or project-based learning with industry partners or postsecondary institutions.
For Barton, starting these experiences in middle school or early in high school is ideal, so that students can find the career options that are a good fit for them early on and have time to explore those careers and pathways to those careers.
Others said they see value in students being exposed to an array of options relatively early.
“Without understanding what opportunities exist for them, young people often revert to the things that they know or are familiar with,” Hartung said. “So many young people, if you ask them what kind of careers there are in healthcare, they’ll say doctor, nurse, or EMT without even thinking that hospitals have a massive IT infrastructure, a massive financial infrastructure. All of these components are true across industries, as well.”
Any career exploration programs should also give students flexibility, he added. There should also be “on-ramps and off-ramps,” Hartung said, so students know they’re not “trapped” in one pathway.
“It’s super important for them to start exploring really early, honestly, but not to put the pressure on them that they have to have their final answer,” said Cindy Schluckebier, integration specialist at the DeBruce Foundation, which offers a free career exploration tool that ranks students’ agilities.
And career exploration isn’t just about finding the right fit for students.
“These experiences are as much about ruling things out as they are [about] figuring out what is the perfect alignment of where your interests and your aptitudes lie,” Green said, “and how you want to contribute to society.”