Shortchanging higher education means lost jobs

Washington will let tens of thousands of jobs get away or go to out-of-state students because of its declining level of support for higher education.

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Shoreline Community College's campus in fall.

Washington will let tens of thousands of jobs get away or go to out-of-state students because of its declining level of support for higher education.

Two-thirds of Washington's job openings during the next several years will need at least one year of some type of college to perform. But the state's community colleges and four-year universities fall significantly short of meeting that predicted demand.

That shortfall in all types of advanced education is expected to be 28,000 Washington unfilled jobs a year from 2014 to 2019.

"We want to pay attention to how higher education is geared to the needs of the economy," said Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, and chairman of the Washington House's Higher Education Committee.

Amid growing concerns about cuts to higher education, state officials briefed the committee last Thursday (Feb. 9) on the gaps that exist between what Washington's community colleges and four-year institutions graduate and what the state needs to fill jobs.

The Legislature is wrestling with how to tweak the state's higher education system to meet the marketplace's needs, a dilemma that includes how to prioritize spending a limited amount of available state money. "Do we lean toward two-year schools or toward four-year schools?... We have no analytic ability to make that choice," Seaquist said.

Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, asked: "Which degrees are we producing that are surplus. ... How should we shift funding?"

At least five bills have gained attention in the Legislature as ways to tackle some of the the issues. One House bill (HB 2483) and one Senate bill (SB 6232) would create a "Student Achievement Council," which is a board that would figure out how to improve the effectiveness of the state's higher education system.

A House bill (HB 2717) calls for a report by Aug. 1 on how to increase the numbers of students in the state's  two-year and four-year colleges, along with figuring out how people can upgrade their academic credentials as their fields evolve. "The automotive field today is very different from the mechanics of yesterday," said Tina Bloomer, a policy research associate with the Washington Board of Community and Technical Colleges.

Another House bill (HB 2156) addresses how to improve and to better coordinate aerospace training in the state. And a House bill (HB 2170) tackles better coordination between education and needed job skills.

During last week's briefing, officials outlined some caveats to their predicted job-shortfall figures. These caveats included not accounting for out-of-state workers moving into Washington with the appropriate education and skills, which will make up for some of the expected shortfalls. Another is that liberal arts degree holders are almost impossible to predict where they may end up. Also, Boeing's recent surge in orders came while state education officials were calculating other higher educational needs, and they have not yet had a chance to tackle aerospace industry training needs. 

Here are some of the highlights of the briefing:

  • Two-thirds of the state's future job openings will require at least one year of post-high school education.

Washington's estimated workforce is expected to grow from 3.26 million in 2009 to 3.73 million in 2019. That translates to an estimated 132,000 job openings annually. Washington's Higher Education Coordinating Board calculations predict that from 2014 to 2019, that 42,000 of those 132,000 annual openings can be filled by people with less than one year of education beyond high school. Another nearly 38,000 annually will need an associate degree or something similar. Plus, another 33,000 a year will need a bachelor's degree, and 19,000 will need a graduate degree.

  • Washington's schools provide fewer places than needed for students across all levels of higher education.

Washington is predicted to graduate 34,000 people a year with associate degrees or something similar from 2014 to 2019. That is roughly 9,000 graduates short of what the state predicts it will need each year. During 2014-2019, the state is expected to grant 26,000 bachelor degrees a year — about 10,00 short of the annual need.

In the same period, Washington's schools are expected to award 11,000 graduate and professional degrees a year — about 9,000 degrees short of the annual need.

  • Community college level training gaps will be worst during 2014-'19 in manufacturing fields, installation and repair trades, plus accounting and bookkeeping.
  • The biggest predicted shortfalls in four-year degrees will be in health professions, computer science, engineering and architecture, life sciences, physical sciences, and human and protection services. 

On the computer science job-education gap, Lewis McMurran, vice president of the Washington Technology Industry Association, said: "This has been a problem for a long time. There are thousands of software and IT jobs in non-IT companies. ... One message is to close that gap. ... It's only going to grow." The state's calculations  predict that in 2014-2019 that Washington will produce 1,665 computer science bachelor degrees a year, which will be 1,171 degrees short annually. During that same period, the state is predicted to produce 1,181 graduate degrees annually in computer science, which will be 696 short of Washington's yearly needs.

  • At the graduate level, the biggest gap will be in the health professions, with the state producing 1,987 graduate degrees annually, falling 754 short each year. Computer science graduate degrees will have the second biggest gap.

Shortfalls in graduate degrees —compared to jobs needing them — will also occur in engineering and architecture, human services, life sciences, agriculture, and physical sciences. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8