Research Questions

The general research questions guiding this study are as follows:

  1. What specific skills, aptitudes, and knowledge do employers, educators, and administrators of STEM education initiatives view as being particularly important in their fields at present and in the near future? 
  2. What are the views of these parties on the relative importance of “hard” skills (e.g., technical) and “soft” skills (e.g., communication)?
  3. To what degree are the business and education sectors aligned (or not) in regards to their perceptions of the most important skills, aptitudes, and knowledge that students or employees should develop?
  4. What steps, if any, are employers and educators taking to enhance student’s or current employees’ skills, aptitudes, and knowledge related to the workforce?
  5. To what degree are employers and educators partnering with one another to develop workers’ skills, aptitudes, and knowledge, and what challenges and opportunities exist for these partnerships?
  6. What role, if any, are STEM education initiatives playing in facilitating the alignment between employers and educators?

Theoretical Framework

In this study we use a diverse array of theoretical frameworks with which to conceptualize how individuals make decisions within complex organizations as well as the broader problem of the alignment between education and industry.  We suggest that such a complex dynamic is multi-level in nature and thus necessitates distinct ways to address individual action and cross-organizational operations.

In order to study how individuals make decisions we utilize theory from situated cognition, socio-technical theories of organizations, and neo-institutional theory.  Situated cognition highlights the role that individual perception and local context (including cultural norms and organizational structures) interact to shape behavior.  However, the context in which individuals make decisions about hiring and the curriculum is rather complex, and to explore this complexity we draw on socio-technical and neo-institutional theory.  A socio-technical view of organizations emphasizes how colleges and companies are comprised of both technical and socio-cultural components.  Then, neo-institutional theory emphasizes how individual organizations such as colleges or companies function within the broader fields of entire industries or sectors, and how these pressures influence local action.  Thus, we use these theories to explore how individuals (e.g., HR directors, curriculum designers) perceive their local environments and its influence on subsequent action.

Research Design

In order to examine how alignment issues operate within a specific geographic, socio-economic, and policy environment, the study focuses on these dynamics within the state of Wisconsin.  The design of the study is that of a comparative, qualitative case study where the cases are individual organizations (i.e., employers, colleges, universities, or STEM education initiatives).  Two types of data will be collected for this study: interview, site-observations and archival data collected during site-visits, and publicly available archival data in the research and policy literatures.  Data will be analyzed using both inductive and deductive approaches to content analysis in order to identify themes and patterns in interview data, and the case study technique to integrate disparate data sources that will provide a robust depiction of alignment issues in the state of Wisconsin.

The study will focus on 7 regions of the state.  Within each region, the study sites will be based on a non-random sample of organizations that represent different types of organizations involved in the education to workforce pipeline (e.g., employers, educational organizations, and STEM education initiatives).   Potential study sites will be identified through internet searches of organizations located in Wisconsin in the two fields that are the focus of the study.  In building the study sample, efforts will be made to include a diversity of organization size.

56 companies will be included in the study (8 per region), and interviews will be conducted with at least 2 individuals at each site including hiring managers, business owners, and employees (n=102). In addition to interviews, observations of the “shop floor” will be conducted at each site.  21 educational organizations will be included in the study (2- and 4-year institutions), and interviews will be conducted with guidance or career counselors, instructors, and administrators (n=70).  Finally, 14 STEM education initiatives will be included in the study, and interviews will be conducted with program managers and student participants (n=28).  In addition to interview and observation data, archival or documentary data will also be collected at each site, which will result in a rich and varied dataset.


The design of the study was initiated in November of 2012, with UW-Madison Institutional Research Board approval secured in February of 2013.  The major portion of data collection will begin in November of 2013 and continue through June of 2014.  Data analysis will begin during the summer of 2014 and continue through May 2015.  Development of policy briefs, research and articles will begin in early 2014 and final products will be completed by October of 2016.


The planned products of this research are designed to reach three distinct audiences.  First, policymakers in the state of Wisconsin and others at the state level will be targeted through the publication of one or two Policy Briefs through the UW-Madison-based Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education (WISCAPE).  Second, education researchers will be targeted through the publication of peer-reviewed journal articles.  Third, the general public will be targeted through the publication of a short (e.g., 100-125 pages) book.

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Exploring the STEM Skills Gap is housed at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Copyright ©2013, The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System