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Where the jobs are: State told to increase STEM degrees

The University of Washington-Tacoma's Science Building. Credit: Joe Wolf/Flickr

The devil is in the details. The Washington Roundtable released a report Tuesday on the gap of jobs-versus-education in Washington and how to tackle that gap — in very broad strokes.

The devilish details are what, specifically, can the Washington Legislature do? And how much would those fix-it measures cost?

Right now, more questions exist than answers.

“It’s a large problem. It’s going to take more than one year to do this,” said Steve Mullin, president of the Washington Roundtable.

The Washington Roundtable and The Boston Consulting Group said 25,000 skilled job openings in Washington have not been filled for more than three months because of a lack of qualified applicants, mostly in science, technology, engineering and health care. That 25,000 could grow to 50,000 by 2017, their report said.

“The large companies have the capacity to go out and recruit folks. The small and medium companies do not,” Mullin said.

Among other things, the report recommends that the state add more computer science, engineering and health care students to its universities.

Mullin noted that the state’s three largest universities recently turned away 1,200 potential engineering and science students because of a lack of capacity to teach them. Extra money to the state’s colleges would allow that student to be admitted and eventually shrink the gap of missing qualified job applicants, Mullin said.

The Washington Roundtable hopes the Legislature would allocate extra money this session, but the business organization has not yet nailed down how much extra money would be needed. “The numbers are substantial. But in overall Olympia terms, the numbers are substantially modest,” Mullin said.

For higher education, Senate Republicans are talking about adding $300 million to the state’s budget. But questions exist on how that $300 million is calculated. Are the actual apples-to-apples figure really $75 million to $100 million? And is the extra money truly available without raising taxes?

If a “coherent strategy” is mapped out on this issue, the Washington Roundtable might be willing to support seeking new revenue sources to put it into action, Mullin said.

Meanwhile, the Washington Roundtable wants the Legislature to keep differential university tuition as an option. Despite being on the law books, differential tuition has never actually been used by the state’s colleges. The concept is that universities would charge higher tuition for the more-expensive-to-teach courses, such as science and engineering. The House passed a bill 95-1 in February to eliminate differential tuition because of perceived unfairness to students. That bill has stayed in the Senate’s Higher Education Committee with no action for five weeks.

The Washington Roundtable believes differential tuitions could help pay for more capacity to teach science and engineering.

However, Mullin acknowledged that higher science and engineering tuitions could discourage poorer students from applying to those programs. The Washington Roundtable is hoping that new scholarships — possibly from Boeing and Microsoft —could be made available to those less affluent students.

The organization views Grades K-12 as the source for increased numbers of applicants to university science, computer and engineering programs. Consequently, it is optimistic about various K-12 education bills floating around the Legislature, Mullin said.

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut’s Olympia 2013 page.

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