America’s science job conundrum

July 15, 2011, 5:46 PM UTC

By Shelley DuBois, reporter

FORTUNE — Despite the gloomy jobs report this month, there’s some bright news for American job-seekers.

The U.S. Department of Commerce reported that positions in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields are on the rise in the United States.

The Commerce Department report says that over the past 10 years, the number of people employed in STEM jobs increased by three times as much as the growth rate for non-STEM employment, growing by just under 8% to 7.6 million workers. Between 2008 and 2018, U.S. STEM jobs are predicted to grow by 17%, compared to a growth rate estimate of just under 10% for non-STEM jobs.

Job growth expectations of any kind are certainly encouraging, but will the U.S. have enough qualified workers to fill these jobs? Perhaps not, as it looks like the U.S. education system is falling behind in the very fields that show the most job growth potential.

An uptick in STEM jobs bodes well for wages: employees in these fields made, in 2010, an average of $25 per hour, $9 more per hour than people working in non-STEM fields.

But even as the number of jobs in the STEM sector increases, there’s a possibility that Americans could struggle to meet the demand. According to a report published last year by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, less than one-third of eighth graders in the U.S. are considered proficient in math and science. That’s the population that would need to be prepared to fill the new STEM jobs that are expected.

Nevertheless, the 2010 White House report on STEM education highlights some pretty dire setbacks, including systemic problems at many schools and a lack of teachers who can effectively teach STEM subjects, even at schools that are otherwise successful. The result is a student population that is not only unprepared for STEM education, but uninterested in the subjects.

The White House report outlines a strategy that includes more support for STEM subjects and various rewards and incentives for teachers and students who excel in them. But, by the Commerce Department’s estimates, there will be about 1.3 million new STEM jobs to fill in the U.S. This means that STEM education will need to pick up soon so that schools can prepare middle and high school students who will enter the workforce when those jobs become available.

If not, America will face an embarrassing problem — a pocket of good, available jobs and an inability to fill them.