Insufficient STEM education is costing Washingtonians 25,000 jobs

A business group says more money for universities could bring down the unemployment rate statewide.
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A business group says more money for universities could bring down the unemployment rate statewide.

A new report shows the benefits Washingtonians would reap if the state addressed its weak support for science in higher education. The study, released Tuesday evening by the Washington Roundtable and The Boston Consulting Group, claims that Washington is leaving 25,000 jobs unfilled because there aren't enough qualified job applicants. About 80 percent of those — roughly 20,000 — are in science, technology, engineering and health.

Tackling the skills shortage, the study found, could cut the state's unemployment rate significantly — potentially by 2 percentage points within five years — and will raise state and local tax revenues by more than $1 billion annually within five years. Overall, some 160,000 jobs could be created across the state by filling the tech jobs and then reaping the spin-off benefits of additional job creation.

The report says five main actions can address most of the "skills gap" for the state:

  • Increase university capacity in computer sciences, engineering and health-care through better funding and innovative delivery methods.
  • Improve STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education in the K-12 school system to be able to fill even greater university capacity with in-state students.
  • Align technical degree and certificate programs at community colleges with employer needs, while increasing nursing education programs.
  • Promote the state nationally as a good place for highly educated professionals in tech fields to work in small and medium-size companies, as well as in better known firms.
  • Support expansion of international immigration opportunities.

A significant part of the problem could be addressed relatively quickly by expanding university-level STEM offerings, areas in which traditionally weak state budget support has worsened in recent years. Well-qualified students, the report claims, would immediately fill most openings. Joel Janda, a partner in the Boston Consulting Group, noted that well-qualified applicants to the computer science program at the University of Washington currently vastly outnumber the places available.

Maintaining growth in higher education STEM offerings though, would require the state's public schools to engage more young students in science, engineering and the like. The study also calls for better coordination of community college technical programs.

Even so, some jobs would continue to be filled by out-of-state and foreign hires, the groups said.

Steve Mullin is the president of the Roundtable, a business organization that has long pushed the state to improve education at all levels. He said the study shows there would be "quantifiable returns" for the state in doing a better job of providing higher education opportunities in the fields. Gov. Jay Inslee and others have already said they want to focus on job creation and economic development. "Why would you not see this as the top economic development strategy?" Mullin said.

Member companies in the Roundtable have talked repeatedly about their difficulties finding qualified workers. Janda said the examination of job openings showed the job gap is already large and growing with the economic recovery.

The study found 25,000 "acute" cases of unfilled jobs, which it defined as positions that had gone unfilled for three months or more without. "These are jobs that currently exist," Janda said. "They are open, but employers cannot find people with the skills to fill them."

Mullin said employers sometimes hire someone with less skill than desired, but frequently find productivity is worse. They also hire from out-of-state, but that tends to have less positive impact on the local economy in the long run, in part because many employees move on to jobs in other cities. 


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