The STEM shortage


0513 Skills 01To meet demand for skilled workers, business leaders, along with educators and politicians, promote science, technology, engineering and math education.

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BY JON BELL

0513 Skills 01At first glance, it might not seem like the near collapse of the American auto industry a few years ago would have been much of a boon to an iconic Oregon pocketknife manufacturer. But it was.

Skilled engineers, machinists and die makers let go by the big automakers were suddenly on the market and in need of work. And Leatherman Tool Group, the now 30-year-old Portland multitool company, needed them.

“In terms of talent, the hardest for us to find is on the technical side: the skilled machine operators, the die builders, the designers, the technical engineers,” says Mindy Harter, vice president of human resources for Leatherman. “When the big auto bust happened, we got some great talent from Michigan.”

Why would an Oregon-grown company turn to the Great Lakes state to fill its ranks? In short, there are times when portions of Oregon’s labor pool aren’t deep enough — or skilled enough — to meet workforce demands.

“Our goal is always to scrub Oregon for talent first,” says Harter, noting that Leatherman is up to about 550 regular employees and just over 100 temporary ones, a good portion of them Oregonians. “But there are times when we’ve definitely had to broaden our searches to find the people we need.”

That Leatherman at times has had to look elsewhere is not unique. But it does highlight how the so-called skills gap — the idea that the skills of the workforce may not be up to snuff for the needs of the workplace — may be manifest here in Oregon. That gap can be the product of any number of factors, from the rapid pace of technological change to economic uncertainty, but one stands out more than any other: education. And nowhere is that skills gap likely to be more prevalent than in jobs tied to education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, otherwise known as STEM.

According to a 2011 report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, the number of STEM-related jobs in Oregon is expected to grow by 13% in the next five years, from 90,400 in 2008 to 102,420 by 2018. A second report, called “Oregon Must Compete,” released by the nonprofit business and education advocacy group America’s Edge in April, also found that Oregon jobs requiring some postsecondary education are expected to grow 40% faster than jobs for high school dropouts, with STEM positions expanding more quickly than other fields. And nearly all those STEM jobs — an estimated 94% of them — will require postsecondary education by 2018.

While that’s an exciting prospect for a state with a strong tech sector and some solid manufacturers, from an education standpoint, it’s also a daunting one. Oregon had a 68% on-time high school graduation rate in 2012, the fourth worst in the nation. That same year, only 29% of Oregon’s high school graduates who took the ACT, a standardized test for college-bound students, met college-readiness benchmarks in the core areas of English, math, reading and science; they were least prepared in science. And where once, in 2001, Oregon ranked 15th in the nation in terms of per capita degrees granted in science and engineering, in 2010 it clocked in at No. 34.

Just how Oregon will be able to improve those numbers, meet STEM projections and fulfill the needs of Oregon businesses looking for skilled and qualified workers remains uncertain, but there is movement afoot. The state has embarked on an ambitious education-reform path designed to boost academic outcomes. Some school districts, despite perennial funding shortfalls, have found ways to offer STEM and career technical education (CTE) programs and partner with local companies. And many businesses, faced with a shallower talent pool from which to fish, have launched grow-your-own initiatives — such as apprenticeship programs and specific community college training courses — aimed at grooming today the workers they’ll need tomorrow.

The efforts have broad support from the education and business communities, but they are not without detractors. Some say state reforms are little more than bureaucratic rearranging. Others say that STEM and CTE programs, despite their effectiveness and practicality in the real world, are being whittled away in exchange for general core classes aimed more at addressing the achievement gap — the education-performance disparity between students of varying racial or socioeconomic backgrounds — than the skills gap.

Such criticism only reinforces the reality that, within the next five years, many more Oregon businesses are going to need highly skilled, STEM-educated workers. Whether or not those workers materialize depends in large part on how the education system evolves from here.

“More can be done to further that [STEM] education and get our youth excited about engineering and other fields,” says Cindy Marple, director of human resources for the Beaverton digital watermark and identification technology company Digimarc. “As we look at an aging workforce, we have to get that next generation engaged and passionate about it. It’s a challenge, but it’s encouraging as well.”

 

 


0513 Skills 02One of the reasons STEM has become such an important piece of the workforce puzzle is because, with 21st-century advances in technology, technical knowledge has become embedded in many different types of work. High-tech companies obviously need workers with STEM backgrounds, such as Ph.D.s in engineering and computer science — positions that companies like Intel routinely import from outside Oregon. But these days, STEM workers are also vital to many manufacturers, whose automated, computerized and robotic systems require much more technical savvy than before.

For example, modern-day machinists often need to know how to write computer code to program the machines they use; advanced welding, too, with its complex mix of metallurgy, science, math and traditional know-how, has also become a STEM job, as New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman pointed out last year.

“Most of the roles that we have require at least some technical capability or acumen,” says Steve Duea, vice president of human resources at PCC Structurals, an aluminum and titanium investment casting division of Precision Castparts, one of only two Fortune 500 companies in Oregon. The company employs more than 2,500 people at its operations in Portland. Duea says PCC is able to find much of its workforce locally but like Leatherman there are times when the talent pool runs dry in Portland.

Digimarc, which employs 125 people, including 75 engineers, occasionally looks outside the state to fill specialty positions. But according to Marple, it’s had good luck finding technically qualified folks nearby. That may be less the result of a plentiful supply of STEM graduates in Oregon and more due to the talent swapping that often occurs between Oregon’s high-tech firms.

Either way, both operations need employees with STEM in their background. And that usually takes root through education. But in Oregon, as in most states, education has been on an uncertain swing in recent years, and widespread funding shortfalls have led to cuts in electives such as art, music and, of late, the CTE programs that might give students their first real taste of advanced manufacturing, robotics or other STEM-related fields.

“We should really be playing to our strengths and looking at technical training, robotics and things like that, that we’re going to need for well-paying jobs,” says Lainie Block Wilker, a Portland attorney, parent and outspoken critic of the way Portland Public Schools has trimmed some of its CTE programs.

Two years ago the district implemented an enrollment cap at Benson Polytechnic High School, which, for decades, has offered students a more technical education in such pathways as health science, engineering and communications technology. The goal had been to boost enrollment and even out the core course offerings at other neighborhood high schools while hopefully narrowing the achievement gap. Subsequent funding shortages and capped enrollment have since led to cuts to the school’s engineering and drafting programs. Disappointed in the move, local manufacturers — including Vigor Industrial, the Greenbrier Companies and Oregon Iron Works — sent a letter to the PPS Board of Education in March insisting the enrollment cap be raised.

Wilker says cuts to programs like those at Benson, which educate students in important fields, don’t make sense. What they will do, she says, is heighten the skills gap just when Oregon technology and manufacturing companies are looking for their next generation of employees.

“The focus is on the achievement gap,” she says. “Make it the skills gap. Let’s look at where the jobs are — health sciences, manufacturing, software — and recalibrate.”


0513 Skills 03To varying degrees, there are wheels in motion to try and boost STEM and CTE programs. The 20,000-student Hillsboro School District has dealt with its own share of constrained resources over the years, which have led to cuts in CTE and elective programs, according to assistant superintendent Steve Larson. But that hasn’t prevented the district from offering students an array of opportunities in everything from health services to automotive technology as they try and figure out their direction.

“We’re in a position where if we don’t think differently how to strengthen the experiences kids can have on a limited budget, we’re not going to turn out the outcomes we’re looking for,” Larson says.

In Hillsboro, that’s involved building close partnerships with companies in the business community like Intel, lining up job shadows and partnering with institutions such as Portland Community College, and collaborations like the Portland Metro STEM Partnership, which PPS and other districts are also part of. Larson says the HSD is also home to several STEM-focused elementary schools, an app club at one high school and vocational-education programs geared toward the real, 21st-century world.

“Those kinds of opportunities have all been updated,” he says. “We don’t want our kids building birdhouses; we want them building real houses.” The very entities that will be looking for STEM applicants to fill their ranks have also begun to step up and play a more active role. “For us, it’s never too early to get people exposed and help to demystify health care for those who might one day be interested,” says Dave Underriner, CEO of Providence Health & Services for the Oregon region. In March, the health system invited 125 high school students to its Brain Watch program, which let them watch a brain surgery live while learning about various careers in health care.

Digimarc hosts high school students for eight-week summer internships through the Apprenticeships in Science and Engineering Program’s Saturday Academy. Leatherman, too, sponsors college students for paid internships, and it has partnered with Mt. Hood Community College on customized workforce training programs. Both companies are also involved with the state’s Multiple Engineering Co-op Program, which unites college students with industry partners to enhance their real-world education.


0513 Skills 04Some of the largest shifts in education aimed at better preparing the future workforce are taking place not at the district or industry level, but all the way up at the state level. In 2011 Gov. Kitzhaber, with the support of educators, businesspeople and lawmakers, passed a series of educational reforms, including the 40-40-20 goal, which aims by 2025 to have 40% of Oregonians attaining a bachelor’s degree or higher,
40% earning a two-year degree or technical certificate and 20% earning at minimum a high school diploma or equivalent.

“We believe that goal broadly reflects the type of workforce that will be required in 2025, and that will help drive the state economy by then,” says Ben Cannon, a former teacher who now serves as Kitzhaber’s education policy advisor.

At present, Cannon says about 29% of Oregonians reach the first 40% goal and earn a four-year degree; only about 19% attain the middle 40%, which often comprises two-year degrees or technical certificates in STEM-related fields.

“That’s where we have to do the most work,” says Ryan Deckert, president of the Oregon Business Association, which worked closely with lawmakers on implementing the recent reforms.

Achieving 40-40-20, Cannon says, will at first take two major pushes: one to seamlessly connect all points along the pre-K through 20 learning continuum, and another having the state play a more active role in strategically investing education dollars. “We should be a more active investor,” he says, noting that the co-chairs’ proposed general fund education budget for the 2013-15 biennium was just under $8.5 billion. In Kitzhaber’s version of that budget, the state would invest in several specific outcomes — reading by third grade, for example — and at least $14 million to help improve students’ career readiness, particularly in STEM programs.

Similarly, Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian has requested $20 million to improve or help start new vocational education programs at up to 70 schools around the state. “Investment in STEM is designed to respond to very specific workforce needs, so we are moving in that direction,” Cannon says.

That movement ultimately aims to help grow the greater economy — and to address anxieties about Oregon, and American, competitiveness in an era characterized by waning education funding, the loss of traditional manufacturing jobs and the expansion of tech-oriented economies in China and India. To that end, the growing obsession with STEM education is part of a larger cultural narrative about the nation’s decline and possibilities for rebirth.

An increased focus on STEM and CTE programs won’t solve all the state’s economic challenges. But it will help students of all learning styles and interests find meaningful career pathways, while ensuring major Oregon employers such as Leatherman, Digimarc and PCC Structurals will be able to find the skilled workers they need right here. And although many claim the current reforms and level of investment don’t go far enough, the big-picture goals of more rigorous education — STEM and otherwise — enjoy widespread support.

“As the governor has put it, you can go in a circle of prosperity or you can circle down the drain,” Deckert says. “The way we’re heading with education, we’re hoping to keep everyone on the prosperity initiative.”

0513 Skills Facts

Jon Bell is a Portland-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Oregon Business. He can be reached at [email protected].