The STEM shortage

| Print |  Email
Articles - May 2013
Monday, April 29, 2013

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.”

 

 



 

Comments   

 
Guest
+1 #1 Just in Oregon problem?Guest 2013-04-29 18:29:28
Maybe this issue is just Oregon specific. The Atlantic has an article today that come to the exact opposite conclusion: America’s tech talent shortage is a myth
http://qz.com/79322/americas-tech-talent-shortage-is-a-myth/
And the Economic Policy Institute also reports there's no dearth of STEM talent.
http://www.epi.org/files/2013/bp359-guestworkers-high-skill-labor-market-analysis.pdf
Quote | Report to administrator
 
 
Guest
-1 #2 writerGuest 2013-05-03 18:11:15
Thanks for your comments. One of the issues behind the STEM worker and skills gap issue is whether or not there is indeed a shortage or a gap. For every study that says there isn't a shortage or gap (e.g. the links you shared), there are others that point in the other direction (those cited in the story). The bigger focus for this piece was more about the skilled trades and associated jobs — many of which have become more advanced over the years and now require some STEM training — and how the education system in Oregon is evolving (or not) to produce the full range of workers that companies here in Oregon will need in the future.
Quote | Report to administrator
 

More Articles

Beneath the Surface

May 2015
Thursday, April 23, 2015
0515-goodhacker01 250pxwBY LINDA BAKER

On April 1 I attended a forum at the University of Portland on the sharing economy. The event featured panelists from Lyft and Airbnb, as well as Portland Mayor Charlie Hales. Asked about the impact of tech-driven sharing economy services. Hales said the new business models are reshaping the landscape. “But,” he added, “I don’t pretend to understand how a lot of this [technology] works.” 


Read more...

The Good Hacker

May 2015
Friday, April 24, 2015
BY CHRIS HIGGINS

As digital security breaches skyrocket, a cybersleuth everyman takes center stage.


Read more...

Foundations perspective

May 2015
Monday, April 27, 2015
BY KIM MOORE

A conversation with Martha Richards, executive director of the James F. & Marion L. Miller Foundation.


Read more...

6 highlights from the Craft Brewers Conference

The Latest
Friday, April 17, 2015
thumbcbcPHOTOS BY  JASON E. KAPLAN

The 32nd annual CBC attracted a record number of attendees (11,000)  to the Oregon Convention Center.


Read more...

Letting Go

April 2015
Friday, March 27, 2015
BY AMY MILSHTEIN

As baby boomers sell their businesses, too many forget the all-important succession plan.


Read more...

Can small be large?

Linda Baker
Wednesday, April 01, 2015
040115-lindablogthumbBY LINDA BAKER

Leaders in Oregon's ag sector gathered this morning in Portland’s Coopers Hall winery/taproom to discuss the role of the region as an export gateway, impediments to exporting products and solutions to containerized shipping challenges.


Read more...

On the Road

April 2015
Friday, March 27, 2015
BY LINDA BAKER

My daughter turned 18 last week, and for her birthday I got her a Car2Go membership. Not to label myself a disruptor or anything, but it felt like a groundbreaking moment. The two of us, mother and child, were participating in a new teen rite of passage: Instead of handing over the car keys, I handed over a car-sharing card — with the caveat that she not use the gift as her own personal car service.


Read more...
Oregon Business magazinetitle-sponsored-links-02
SPONSORED LINKS