One of the reasons STEM has become such an important piece of the workforce puzzle is because, with 21st-century advances in technology, technical knowledge has become embedded in many different types of work. High-tech companies obviously need workers with STEM backgrounds, such as Ph.D.s in engineering and computer science — positions that companies like Intel routinely import from outside Oregon. But these days, STEM workers are also vital to many manufacturers, whose automated, computerized and robotic systems require much more technical savvy than before.
For example, modern-day machinists often need to know how to write computer code to program the machines they use; advanced welding, too, with its complex mix of metallurgy, science, math and traditional know-how, has also become a STEM job, as New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman pointed out last year.
“Most of the roles that we have require at least some technical capability or acumen,” says Steve Duea, vice president of human resources at PCC Structurals, an aluminum and titanium investment casting division of Precision Castparts, one of only two Fortune 500 companies in Oregon. The company employs more than 2,500 people at its operations in Portland. Duea says PCC is able to find much of its workforce locally but like Leatherman there are times when the talent pool runs dry in Portland.
Digimarc, which employs 125 people, including 75 engineers, occasionally looks outside the state to fill specialty positions. But according to Marple, it’s had good luck finding technically qualified folks nearby. That may be less the result of a plentiful supply of STEM graduates in Oregon and more due to the talent swapping that often occurs between Oregon’s high-tech firms.
Either way, both operations need employees with STEM in their background. And that usually takes root through education. But in Oregon, as in most states, education has been on an uncertain swing in recent years, and widespread funding shortfalls have led to cuts in electives such as art, music and, of late, the CTE programs that might give students their first real taste of advanced manufacturing, robotics or other STEM-related fields.
“We should really be playing to our strengths and looking at technical training, robotics and things like that, that we’re going to need for well-paying jobs,” says Lainie Block Wilker, a Portland attorney, parent and outspoken critic of the way Portland Public Schools has trimmed some of its CTE programs.
Two years ago the district implemented an enrollment cap at Benson Polytechnic High School, which, for decades, has offered students a more technical education in such pathways as health science, engineering and communications technology. The goal had been to boost enrollment and even out the core course offerings at other neighborhood high schools while hopefully narrowing the achievement gap. Subsequent funding shortages and capped enrollment have since led to cuts to the school’s engineering and drafting programs. Disappointed in the move, local manufacturers — including Vigor Industrial, the Greenbrier Companies and Oregon Iron Works — sent a letter to the PPS Board of Education in March insisting the enrollment cap be raised.
Wilker says cuts to programs like those at Benson, which educate students in important fields, don’t make sense. What they will do, she says, is heighten the skills gap just when Oregon technology and manufacturing companies are looking for their next generation of employees.
“The focus is on the achievement gap,” she says. “Make it the skills gap. Let’s look at where the jobs are — health sciences, manufacturing, software — and recalibrate.”