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Monday, 20 August 2012 09:46

West Michigan must rise to STEM challenge

Written by  Birgit Klohs | The Right Place Inc.
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At a recent presentation, I mentioned that liberal arts students at West Michigan colleges are graduating at a rate of three-to-one over STEM — the science, technology, engineering and math-related programs. That remark sparked some interesting public comment. In observing discussions about that remark, I noticed the conversation transitioned into a debate about which degree is more valuable. That notion misses the point entirely. The debate should not be an “either/or” proposition but a “both/and” solution.

The increasing demand of STEM-related talent is not a matter of opinion or conjecture. It is the future of business and industry demand throughout the world.

Manpower Group’s 2012 Talent Shortage Survey of more than 38,000 businesses in 41 countries and territories revealed the 10 most difficult positions for employers to fill:

• Skilled trades workers
• Engineers
• Sales representatives
• Technicians
• IT staff
• Accounting and finance staff
• Drivers
• Management/executives
• Laborers
• Secretaries, PAs, administrative assistants and office support staff

Of the top five jobs, four require a high-level of STEM skills. Respondents reported that their greatest difficulty was the lack of available candidates with the right technical expertise and skills in a given industry. The U.S. was one of those countries reporting difficulties.

Across the U.S., employers struggle to find qualified STEM talent. A recent study from Change the Equation, an organization that supports STEM education, found unemployed workers outnumber online job postings by more than three to one. While across STEM fields, job postings outnumbered unemployed workers by almost two to one.

In a related Brookings report, the group identified an alarming trend among U.S. employers applying for H-1B visas in their pursuit to fill STEM talent needs domestically. In 92 of the 106 high-demand metropolitan areas, STEM occupations accounted for more than half of all H-1B visa requests.

In West Michigan’s 13-county region, STEM-related jobs have risen over 8.3 percent since 2009, which beats the national average of 3.9 percent. Although West Michigan universities report approximately 3,000 STEM-related degree completions annually, the region’s employers continue to struggle in filling STEM positions. However, it is also important to note that STEM skills should not be assumed to require a traditional four-year university science degree. In fact, as the U.S. and other nations increase the focus on four-year university education, the resulting impact has had a negative effect on vocational and technical programs.

Opponents of STEM investment initiatives counter that our nation’s colleges and universities already graduate enough professionals with STEM degrees. The issue is about more than degree completions, as the growing need for non-degree holding talent demonstrates. And, contrary to the perception regarding wage increases, the U.S. Department of Commerce released a 2011 STEM occupation report, “STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future,” that found STEM talent with less than a bachelor’s degree earn 32 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts.

If West Michigan is to compete globally in the competition for jobs and investment, we must increase our focus and investment in STEM talent development at all levels. STEM education must be a core component at all levels of educational and career advancement.

West Michigan businesses and universities must work together to build the STEM talent needed for tomorrow’s jobs. The Right Place’s Manufacturers Council set an example by creating and supporting a workforce development committee of several regional manufacturers that actively engages local schools promoting STEM career opportunities.

But, the business and educational sectors can only go so far to create opportunities for growth. Job seekers and the next generation must take advantage of these opportunities. Far too few of West Michigan’s young men and women are pursuing careers in STEM fields, even as demand skyrockets.

Admittedly, it will take a long-term effort by area businesses, educational systems and local and state government all working together toward common, realistic goals. As we continue to move toward a technology-driven society, STEM talent will continue to be a driving force.

Either we respond to the challenge today, or we accept the region’s eventual decline in marketable talent, losing thousands of future jobs and millions in investment. We have the talent, resources, and initiative to meet this challenge head-on. With increased investment and collaboration today, we can drive the economic prosperity of tomorrow.

Read 1089 times Last modified on Monday, 20 August 2012 09:53

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