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Study: Higher ed changes needed to meet demand for STEM jobs

OLYMPIA – Although the state’s unemployment numbers may be slowly declining, the number of open jobs for skilled workers is rising and could double in the next five years, a business group said Wednesday.

A new study by an international consulting firm estimates the state’s businesses have about 25,000 openings for highly skilled workers in computer sciences, engineering and health care that don’t have people to fill them, Steve Mullin of the Washington Roundtable said.

Most of those jobs require training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. Unless the state makes changes in higher education policy and public schools, this “job skills gap” will grow to about 50,000 jobs by 2017, the roundtable’s study projects.

Turning that around won’t just be good for the newly hired workers or the companies that need them, Mullin said. It will have a boost on the overall economy, particularly by filling the high-paying computer science jobs that have a high “multiplier” effect by supporting 4.6 other jobs.

But it won’t be easy. The state’s public universities are already full and turning away qualified students for computer sciences and engineering, he said. Adding university slots to meet the demand from prospective students will be expensive, but talk by some legislators to spend more on higher education is a good start.

The community and technical colleges also need to look at programs that prepare students for health care jobs that are in higher demand, Mullin said. The state should not reduce science and math requirements for high school graduation and find programs that generate more interest in science.

Asked if businesses in the roundtable would support higher taxes to help meet some of those goals, Mullin left the door open: “When we’ve been part of the strategy to solve a problem, we’ve bought into it.”

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