Growing STEM: Careers abound in science, technology, engineering and mathematics


Guest Post by Adrienne Martin,
Originally Featured in Career Options Magazine

As Canada’s knowledge-based economy continues to grow and the aging workforce retires, opportunities in nearly every industry for students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are growing. For those looking to land one of these jobs, the key is to acquire the right skills and apply them to the industries looking for highly specialized, STEM-educated workers.

The importance of the future STEM workforce to Canada’s economy shouldn’t be overlooked, as it is the talent pool providing essential skills and knowledge to a whole range of industries. But with some STEM sectors projected to face a shortage of workers, the pace of economic growth could slow dramatically. According to a 2012 House of Commons report, “Labour and Skills Shortages in Canada: Addressing Current and Future Challenges,” industries that employ large numbers of STEM workers will be hard hit by the shortage. For example, the environmental sector alone expects at least 100,000 job vacancies in the next 10 years.

Five sectors that experts say are likely to need new STEM workers are mining, biotechnology, oil and gas, electricity and the environment. Jobs within these sectors are virtually limitless, leading to well-paid, rewarding careers as bioengineers, physicists, chemists, geologists, engineering technicians—to name just a few.

A lack of skills

One of the fastest-growing industries in need of STEM skills is the environmental sector, which encompasses a diverse range of activities in environmental protection, resource conservation and sustainability. According to a recent ECO Canada study, established environmental industries are driving most of the new job growth in Canada’s green economy.

As a result of this growth, the industry has significant trouble finding the right workers. “For the environment sector, the key issue is not so much about a labour shortage,” says Grant Trump, president and CEO of ECO Canada. “It’s about a skills shortage.” While plenty of people are out looking for jobs, they don’t have the skills that green employers are looking for, and positions are going unfilled. ECO Canada found that one out of three employers has struggled to find staff with the necessary skill sets. In particular, the environmental protection and resource sectors are seeing the most vacancies.

This same trend can be seen in the mining sector, which includes careers related to the development, extraction, processing and reclamation of minerals. Although the industry anticipates that it will need to hire tens of thousands of workers in the next few years in response to labour shortages, employers will be looking for workers with key skills and requirements. Positions will include underground production and development miners, welders and equipment operators, according to the Mining Industry Human Resources Council. The industry estimates it will need to hire 3,990 STEM professionals by 2021 to fill vacant positions.

Employers in the biotechnology field, too, are on the search for skilled STEM workers. BioTalent Canada, the biotechnology sector council, reports that 34.4 percent of biotechnology companies are currently facing a skills shortage. In a sector dominated by research development, technology and pharmaceutical companies, students need to be equipped with the necessary skill sets, such as previous hands-on experience and training.

It’s not something that can be prepared for through online courses, says Catherine Burns, director of the Centre for Bioengineering and Biotechnology at the University of Waterloo. “It’s a highly skilled workforce,” she adds.

But Burns says it’s also a small workforce. “What I see in Canada is that the field is relatively small, but it’s likely to have one of the highest growth rates,” she explains. “So it will be growing quite quickly over the next few years.”

What You’ll Need

Despite the rapidly growing skills shortage, students and employers are having trouble connecting. Many students don’t know exactly what education, training and skills are needed for a STEM career. They need to recognize what today’s employers want, and which post-secondary programs and courses will help them get into a high-demand STEM career.

For example, biology students should look into completing a master’s degree in order to secure a job in the biotechnology field, which Burns says is typically required because of the hands-on experience involved. “This is probably not a field that you can build your skills adequately through things like online courses,” she says.

The same can be said for other STEM careers. While education is definitely important in landing many environmental jobs, real-world experience is also crucial. For example, ECO Canada says 48% of job vacancies in the green sector currently require employees to have a minimum of five years of experience. Getting “hands-on” through co-ops and internships would give students an advantage when entering STEM industries.

Regardless of the job being pursued, the best way to secure it is to prepare. Students should first research which industries are facing skills shortages and in what areas. For example, in light of the overall shortage of labour and skilled workers in the engineering sector, it’s important to know that there’s a higher demand for civil engineers than for chemical and IT engineers.

Second, students should know where and how to best position themselves to enter the workforce. Most post-secondary institutions have information on internship and apprenticeship programs that would provide this vital hands-on experience. You can also look beyond your school for these kinds of programs, like ECO Canada’s International Environmental Youth Corps (IEYC). The organization says that following the end of their internship term last year, 94% of interns secured full-time jobs in their field.

There are other qualities employers look for beyond hands-on experience. In a survey conducted last year, ECO Canada found that on top of the necessary skills and training, environmental employers were looking for “business savvy” workers with good communication skills, critical thinking abilities and customer service skills—in other words, well-rounded candidates with lots to offer besides hard technical skills.

Whether it’s in the field or the office, most vacancies involve independent work, so employers need candidates with key personal attributes such as confidence, responsibility and interpersonal skills. “Employers need to know that a prospective employee is going to fit in well with their current staff and workplace culture,” says Trump.

With proper STEM education and training, today’s students are poised to turn Canada’s labour and skills shortage to their advantage, and to take the first steps in securing their futures. Equipped with the necessary skills and strategies to land the job they want, they’ll have the chance to be a part of an ever-growing and changing industry in which they’ll be highly prized.

About the Author

Adrienne Martin is a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University. After graduation, she hopes to travel the world while pursuing a career in either print or television news. When she’s not writing, you can usually find her watching “Law & Order” re-runs.

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