BY JON BELL
At 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.”