As Inc. 500 CEOs have long made clear, one of the toughest challenges to expanding your company in this economy is finding qualified employees. The American education system’s backwardness in science, technology, engineering, and math training will not help.

The crisis in STEM education has been with us for years, well before the 2005 publication of Rising Above the Gathering Storm, a National Academy of Engineering report that should have been a wake-up call. The report predicted crises in jobs, innovation, and economic growth if the country did not address the problem.

Yet the recent Global Report Card comparing U.S. schools to their international counterparts shows that not only have we failed to address the problem; we’ve let it get worse. American school districts, even many that are stellar by domestic standards, underperform the average in other developed countries, especially in math. Meanwhile, antiscience sentiment--whether embodied in suspicion of genetically modified food, attraction to herbal supplements, or refusal to accept evolution and climate change--has taken hold in strikingly broad segments of American society.

In early November, I moderated a panel made up of entrepreneurs and nonprofit executives at the Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum. The business owners lamented the lack of skilled workers; the nonprofit leaders bemoaned the state of STEM education. Here’s what I learned.

Don’t kid yourself: It’s a crisis

You may assume the failure of STEM education stops at K-12, but the fact is, it extends all the way up the system, from the beginning of K-12 education through bachelor and associate’s degrees to the Ph.D. level. That obviously means there can be no single solution to the problem. Exacerbating the general problem are particular issues such as gender skew: Men tend to study science and engineering at a higher rate than women.

The ramifications are sobering, in terms of unemployment and inequality of opportunity. Those who aren’t well prepared in science and technology will see their options in the job market become only fewer and less attractive with each passing year.

The supply of STEM graduates falls appallingly short

To put it simply, not enough students are studying STEM subjects. This may be owing to a lack of interest, lack of awareness, and lack of understanding as to what types of careers are available in the STEM fields. A lot of that, in turn, traces back to cultural signals. Pop culture attributes no “cool” factor to science.

There are other factors at play as well, including the way STEM is taught. Many math and science teachers do not have a background in those subjects, and those who do have no problem finding higher-paying jobs in the private sector. The spread of standardized tests is also a barrier, given that it discourages interactive learning, particularly important for STEM.

There are mixed signals on the demand side, too

Currently, the manufacturing sector accounts for the highest employment of scientists and engineers in the United States. The gap between what people (especially students) think of when they hear “manufacturing” and the reality of advanced manufacturing today is probably quite large. And, numerically, some of the most advanced parts of manufacturing are projected to keep experiencing employment declines over the next several years.

In addition, the market sometimes sends conflicting signals about the training it requires. One successful entrepreneur pointed out that because his sector (agricultural biotech) changed so rapidly, specific vocational training would actually be a liability. He wanted people with general skills who could adapt: “I’m more interested in great minds than technical skills.”

So what do we do?

The solution starts with students and parents, who need a better understanding of what studying and working in STEM fields actually means. One panelist said we need more people who have an “entrepreneurial mindset” so we can go about creating new types of jobs and industries--and new demand for STEM. Private industry also has a crucial role to play: Several panelists pointed to partnerships already in place between employers and schools, especially community colleges, that train and retrain workers to work in science and engineering occupations.

Another hopeful note is the spread of the “maker movement” and the related rise of digital manufacturing. Together they could present an entirely new career tableau for students studying STEM. Anecdotal evidence from Silicon Valley and Boston (principally related to M.I.T.) suggests that hardware is gaining renewed interest from entrepreneurs and investors. The critical step will be communicating excitement from the technological frontier to schools and students.

On the public policy front, the education system needs better trained teachers and more appealing curricular content. The rise of blended learning--with technological tools embedded in classrooms--might present a way to inculcate student interest in science and technology. Policymakers also need to be better educated about what STEM means and its contribution to the economy; research shows that each manufacturing job supports 2.34 additional nonmanufacturing positions.

Still, there is a long way to go. Perhaps the most painful moment in the discussion came when an entrepreneur, a European immigrant, asked, “What has happened to Americans’ drive for excellence?” If we Americans are honest with ourselves about the current state of STEM education in the U.S., there is, at the moment, no flattering answer.