State falls short in educating for high-tech jobs

The OlympianApril 5, 2013 

The sure-fire pathway to economic recovery, we’ve been told for years, is to create more jobs. When unemployment is low and people are bringing home family-wage paychecks, everyone’s financial boat rises with the tide.

Just last month, the Washington Economic Development Commission released a report saying the state must do better to accelerate job growth and show technological leadership.

But it turns out that thousands of jobs are going unfilled right under our noses.

The state has been quietly creating tens of thousands of new jobs, mostly in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The problem is we aren’t educating enough people with sufficient skills to fill them.

The Washington Roundtable released a report last week showing the dimension of the problem. Its survey of business executives revealed 25,000 jobs statewide have gone unfilled for three months, about 20,000 of them in the computer science and health care fields. That number will swell to 50,000 unfilled STEM-related jobs in about four years.

This is a complete mind-shift for the business community. The Roundtable report suggests we have jobs, we just don’t have the right people to fill them.

More specifically, we have not shifted our education system to adapt to the new job environment in our state. Microsoft, Amazon and other high-tech and biomedical companies located here are battling Silicon Valley for technological supremacy.

Forty percent of the business executives responding to the Roundtable survey said they had no choice but to establish satellite offices in other states to fill their jobs. Other studies have shown that Washington employers have imported workers from other states and nations to fill skilled positions.

To put the problem in a sentence, Washington creates more STEM-related jobs than any other state in the U.S., including California, but ranks in the bottom five states that produce STEM-degree graduates.

The immediate choke point resides at our two- and four-year higher education institutions. The University of Washington has room to accept only 25 percent of students who apply for its computer science program. It takes only half of those who apply for engineering.

Washington State University, UW and Western Washington University combined turned away 1,200 students this year for engineering and computer science.

Even with Saint Martin’s University new engineering building and expanded program, the state’s aerospace and technology industries cannot find enough homegrown engineers to fill their increasing needs, forcing them to import recruits from other states.

A computer science and engineering symposium last year reported that among the top 10 states for technology workers, Washington ranks second for the number of employed engineers. But the report added the majority were educated and trained out of state.

And Boeing reported not long ago that about half of its engineers would retire within the next five years, creating thousands of job openings.

Those facts plainly suggest funneling more funds to our two- and four-year institutions to create additional degree-granting capacity in these targeted fields. At the same time, we must focus pre-school to grade 12 funding on strategic STEM-inspiring programs to prepare students for those college degrees.

Unfortunately, the budgets released so far by the governor and the Republican-controlled Senate do not make bold moves to expand higher education STEM programs. Perhaps the state House will do better.

If we don’t, Washington will eventually lose our large high-tech employers and fail to seize a golden economic growth opportunity there for the taking.

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