By 2020, the U.S. will face a shortage of 5 million workers.

What does this mean for middle-skill occupations—jobs that require education and training beyond a high school degree? More specifically, what does this shortage of workers mean for STEM careers?

STEM careers are positions that require skills and knowledge in science, technology, engineering, or math. This growing career sector accounts for more than 10% of jobs in the U.S., with many at a compensation level nearly double the country’s average. However, there is a persistent skills gap that is making it difficult to fill these STEM positions.

U.S. News & World Report says that the skills gap problem originates, in part, from the fact that “education and workforce development institutions aren’t closely aligned with these sectors to meet the growing demand.” The rise of competency-based education is changing this landscape.


The Rise of the Competency-Based Approach

According to a Gallup and Lumina Foundation poll in February 2014, only 11% of business leaders agree that graduates are prepared to be successful in the workplace. Employers are looking to hire skilled workers who demonstrate the ability to analyze and problem solve real-world challenges—and this real-world relevance is the foundation of competency-based education.

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, author Michelle Weise states that online competency-based programs “have the potential to create high-quality learning pathways that are affordable, scalable, and tailored to a wide variety of industries.”

As an example, Capella University students complete course work and assignments that help them master specific competencies they will need in the workplace. For example, a student studying health care might be asked to outline a process for selecting and rolling out a health insurance plan. Instead of multiple-choice tests, real-job scenarios like this allow participants to showcase practical skills that can translate to on-the-job success immediately.

In her article, Weise goes on to say that, “competency-based education identifies explicit learning outcomes when it comes to knowledge and the application of that knowledge. They include measurable learning objectives that empower students.”


How Competency-Based Education Fills the STEM Skills Gap

The competency-based learning approach can shrink the skills gap by allowing students to:

  • Gain in-demand skills and knowledge at a pace that is consistent with industry trends and changes in technology.
  • Develop skills that align directly with external professional standards in given fields (such as STEM).
  • Move beyond their degree. Employers aren’t just interested in what type of degree you earned, they are looking for information about what you can do and what you know relative to the industry’s needs.

Competency-based education provides skills, abilities, and knowledge that are directly relevant to industry and employer needs—a valid solution to filling the STEM skills gap as 2020 approaches.


Learn more about competency-based education.