Cover: Supporting Middle-Skills STEM Workforce Development

Supporting Middle-Skills STEM Workforce Development

Analysis of Workplace Skills in Demand and Education Institutions' Curricular Offerings in the Oil and Gas Sector

Published Feb 7, 2019

by Gabriella C. Gonzalez, Christopher Joseph Doss, Julia H. Kaufman, Robert Bozick

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Research Questions

  1. How well aligned were the content, skills, and workplace learning opportunities in the tri-state region's college courses with the needs that the region's STEM employers reported?
  2. What content areas were most challenging for students and thus may be areas in which students require more support?

"Middle-skills" jobs require more education and training than that provided by a high school diploma but less education and training than a four-year college degree. Employers struggle to find workers with the needed combination of knowledge and skills to fill middle-skills jobs; this search for workers is particularly pertinent to the tri-state region of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, where the boom from new oil and natural gas technologies related to extraction has propelled the region economically. In this report, researchers surveyed instructional staff at five colleges with training partnerships with oil and gas industry companies in the tri-state region to examine whether these colleges' science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs emphasize the skills and knowledge areas that employers need. In addition, researchers examined which knowledge areas and skills might need more support by asking instructional staff about areas in which students had difficulty and if more resources (and if so, which ones) were needed.

Key Findings

Knowledge, skills not perfectly aligned

  • Instructors reported that they emphasized cross-cutting knowledge areas — those that are applicable to a variety of different courses and fields — more than occupation-specific areas. "Safety" was the most emphasized knowledge area. "Soft skills knowledge" (workplace competencies, such as being able to work in a team) was the second most-emphasized area.
  • Instructors who partnered with industry tended to emphasize the skills that employers want more than instructors who did not have active partnerships.
  • Instructors emphasized cognitive skills more than interpersonal skills in their courses.
  • Syllabi often matched the knowledge areas and skills that instructors stated they emphasized. However, several knowledge areas and skills commonly emphasized in the survey were less frequently addressed in syllabi.
  • Disconnects existed between the knowledge and skills employers sought and what instructors emphasized. A greater percentage of employers sought nontechnical skills in interpersonal and management knowledge areas compared to the percentage of courses that emphasized them. A greater percentage of instructors reported emphasizing technical and cognitive skills than the percentage of employers who reported seeking such skills. This suggests that, although these skills are in high demand, instructors may undervalue them in their courses.
  • Instructors reported that students had the most difficulty with technical and academic knowledge areas in their courses, and with cognitive and management skills. There is a clear and positive association between instructors reporting that they needed more resources and also reporting more student difficulty.


  • Employers, colleges, and third-party interest groups need to continue to collaborate and partner to bridge the gaps between the skills and knowledge employers seek from new hires in high-priority jobs and the skills and knowledge that instructors in STEM fields emphasize in courses. Encouraging dialogue between instructors and employers could result in more aligned curricula.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the National Science Foundation and conducted by RAND Education and Labor.

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