Despite the institutional advantages that New Jersey possesses, however, it is still challenged by the same forces assailing the nation. In this country, one of the perennial problems that educators, politicians, and business leaders talk about is a STEM student and worker shortage. The problem is illustrated by the country's stagnant performance in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's comprehensive survey, which found the American education system performing at roughly the same level as countries like Russia, Portugal, and Hungary. STEM educators were particularly alarmed; in science, the United States ranks 21st, a below-average number among wealthy industrialized nations.
For New Jersey and other states, the problem is especially acute. By 2018, New Jersey will need to fill more than 269,000 STEM jobs. This problem is made worse by young people leaving the state to attend college and older individuals leaving New Jersey in their retirement years.
In 2008, New Jersey led the nation with a net loss of 27,343 students who left the state to go to college. If past patterns hold, many will not return to the state to work or live. By 2018, New Jersey will also bear a large portion of the 2.4 million job vacancies that baby boomers will create when they retire from positions in STEM fields.
In responding to this problem, New Jersey and similar states might start by looking at the story of Morris Tanenbaum. Nearly 60 years ago, Tanenbaum helped develop the world's first silicon transistor in New Jersey. By using silicon as a semiconductor, instead of germanium, an element out of which early transistors were made, Tanenbaum sparked a technological revolution. Today, the silicon transistor is the crucial part of integrated circuits that drive microprocessors and electronic devices in tablets and smartphones. This innovation, however, might never have happened but for a serendipitous encounter.
It was a Princeton tradition for graduate students to introduce undergraduates to local research laboratories, and Tanenbaum was invited to a place he had never heard of called Bell Labs. Tanenbaum was so impressed by what he saw at Bell that he asked for an interview, which turned into a job. At the suggestion of the transistor's inventor, William Shockley, Tanenbaum and others worked together to develop the silicon transistor. Tanenbaum helped create the modern world.
Today, we might think that because of the Internet and availability of information, a near-miss like Tanenbaum's story could never happen. But when we look at the coming STEM shortage and the nation's educational performance, there is too much to lose to leave things to chance.
One way New Jersey is addressing this problem is through the Governor's STEM Scholars Program, a unique public-private partnership developed among leading companies, the Governor's Office, the New Jersey Department of Education, and the secretary of Higher Education.