March 31, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Washington can fill tech jobs by investing in STEM

 

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

What would science, technology, engineering and mathematics be without numbers? Washington is finally getting a look at some, the kind preceded by dollar signs.

Boosting STEM education capacity in Washington, from elementary school to university, will take an estimated $50 million if the state is to graduate as much high-tech talent as business demands, according to Washington Roundtable, which commissioned a study of state needs. With the new money, our four- and two-year colleges can begin to add from 1,200 to 3,600 STEM student slots.

The low figure represents potential majors in technology-related degrees turned away now because the classrooms and teachers are not there to accommodate them. Creating that capacity, and fueling demand by providing more K-12 STEM education, and supply/demand could reach equilibrium at 3,600.

But that only begins to fill a gap of 25,000 “acute” jobs unfilled for three months or more for want of qualified applicants. By 2017, the shortage could reach 50,000, 80 percent of those in either high-tech or health care. And some of those high-income jobs sustain two more down the employment pyramid. They also generate taxes aplenty: an estimated $720 million annually in sales tax and $80 million in local taxes. The unemployment trust fund would get a one-time boost of $350 million.

The good news, Roundtable President Steve Mullin says, is the gap is closing in health care. Not so with STEM jobs, where the shortage becomes ever more acute. Washington employers have been able to cope by attracting talent from others states and other countries, but some – 40 percent of Roundtable members surveyed – are already going to the talent by opening offices outside Washington.

Other states, he says, do a better job meeting their high-tech worker needs than Washington, where the unemployment rate for computer science workers is less than 1 percent. One simple solution would be granting more work visas to international students who would remain in Washington if they could. Perhaps pending reforms will address this foolishness.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed budget recognizes the problems in STEM education, but goes only one-third the way toward the spending the Roundtable consultant says is necessary. He requests $11 million for more four-year university slots and $5 million for the community colleges, which train workers for skilled jobs in aerospace and other industries.

The community colleges get roughed up by the study, which says too many students emerge with skills unneeded by employers. Mullin says the share may be as high as 20 percent.

As capacity increases at the four-year schools, addressing the STEM deficit at the community college and K-12 level will become more important, he says, or the shortages will just move farther down the pipeline. Funneling an additional 1 percent of high school graduates into STEM-related degrees increases the employee pool by 600. Making it 5 percent takes the state close to that 3,600 optimal four-year graduate pool.

The numbers may not be 100 percent accurate. But we do know that if Washington does not pass addition, the result will be subtraction.


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