06.21.2016

Science Education, Millennial Workers, and the Mad Skillz Gap

According to a recent survey by PayScale, there is a giant gap between how millennials view themselves in the workplace and how they are viewed by their managers. Media fretting about how this alleged “slacker generation” is faring in adulthood often manifests in articles decrying the number of millennials who still live with their parents. A recent Pew poll, for example, had the headline “For First Time in Modern Era, Living With Parents Edges Out Other Living Arrangements for 18- to 34-Year-Olds.” But such statistics may say a lot more about the state of the economy than the work ethic of millennials. Likewise, this PayScale study on how millennials misperceive their workplace skills may say a lot more about flaws in our educational system than flaws in 20-somethings. As we will see, one way to correct these flaws centers on increased science education.

According to the PayScale study, while only 2% of millennials (defined as those born 1982–2002) thought of themselves as “unprepared” for their jobs, 13% of their managers described their millennial employees as unprepared. Forty-four percent of managers say writing proficiency was an issue among millennials; for public speaking, 39% of millennials fell short; for data analysis, 36%. Even worse, managers deemed 60% of millennials lacking in critical thinking skills, 56% inattentive to detail, and 46% lacking communication skills. What is especially striking is that millennials did not seem to understand their own deficits. While 20% of millennials described their job qualifications as “extremely prepared,” only 9% of their managers agreed.

Overconfidence is rampant among American students. As part of the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test in science and math abilities, students were asked to rate their math confidence. For the 2012 PISA test, 69% American students reported confidence in their math abilities (compared to the international average of 56%). On the PISA test, however, the United States ranked an embarrassing 27th out of 34, with US students demonstrating “particular weaknesses in performing mathematics tasks with higher cognitive demands.” This gap was particularly acute at the upper levels of math, with just 2% of Americans scoring in the highest rank; 31% of Shanghai students achieved this level. American students may think they’re good in math, but in comparison to their peers in other countries they are not. Students from non-US countries who excelled on the PISA test were much humbler about their mathematical prowess.

The paradox of students feeling confidence but lacking skills may be partly the result of our toxic culture of unearned self-esteem, where effusive praise for mediocre achievements mixes with the haunting dread that some child, somewhere, might not feel like a champion all the time.

But a bigger portion of the blame falls on what schools offer and what schools require. Think about the skills the employers cited above were assessing: writing proficiency, public speaking, data analysis, critical thinking, attentiveness to detail, communication. There are many disciplines that touch on pieces of these, but only one type of class that consistently employs all of these: science courses. We might not be able to change endemic American overconfidence, but requiring more science classes might at the least improve a broad range of skills.

Science draws upon and integrates numerous essential skills. Scientists are expected to be effective communicators, frequently speaking in public at scientific conferences and translating their complex data into coherent explanations, both oral and written. Science requires attention to detail. Critical thinking is the essence of scientific examination, and critical analysis of data is required at all levels of science.

Science classes draw on skills taught in courses ranging from English, history, public speaking, math, and logic. Even artistic and graphic skills come into play; for example, early in my geologic education, I was expected to become proficient in Adobe Illustrator as a means of displaying data I collected in the field. So science courses can truly be said to be a capstone discipline, drawing on elements learned in other courses, integrating many disparate skills to synthesize something bigger than one individual class. Most students will not pursue careers in science, of course, but everyone can benefit from classes requiring the integration of so many skills.

It should be emphasized that the purpose of education is not merely to prepare students for earning money. But science courses can refine the skills employers are looking for. In our technologically-driven economy it makes sense that schools should expect their students to take an ever-increasing number of science courses.

It may be too late to fix the workplace deficits of millennials, but we can work today toward increasing the amount of science future students are required to take.