Higher Education, the Driver of Our State’s Economy, Must Avoid the Budget Axe
Even with the economic downturn, plenty of Seattle area technology companies are going to be hiring new, highly skilled workers in 2009. These are high-paying jobs; the average annual salary plus benefits per worker in Washington’s technology-based industries is more than twice the state average.
Too bad more of those jobs won’t be going to people who grew up here.
Why? Because Washington State is not preparing its children to effectively compete for these jobs. It is projected that each year we will have over 1,000 more openings in engineering, over 1,000 more openings in the medical professions, and over 3,000 more openings in the computer science field than qualified in-state graduates, based on the current rate of production.
Many people are surprised to learn that, on a per capita basis, Washington is 37th out of 50 states in producing four-year college graduates, i.e., people with bachelor’s degrees. Seattle is recognized as one of the most highly educated metropolitan areas in the country, and Washington ranks 9th among the 50 states in the percentage of residents age 25 years and over who hold a bachelor’s or higher degree.
So, how do we end up with a comparatively high concentration of educated workers – workers who have fueled the growth of our software, life sciences, aerospace and other innovative industries and earned us a place among an elite group of technology-intensive states?
We import them, of course; we draw highly educated people from other states and other countries to fill these high-wage jobs.
The accompanying chart shows how we stack up against other states in the number of educated workers we import compared to degrees we award. Among all 50 states, only Nevada imports more educated workers than Washington! Who wants to be second only to Nevada in the disparity between our ability to educate our own kids and the opportunities our own economy provides?
The upside is that we do have a robust economy and a quality of life that attracts top talent from around the nation and around the world (when they can get a visa, that is). Let’s keep that up, because, in the global economy, it’s a global competition for talent, and we will need the creativity, expertise and entrepreneurial spirit of the best and brightest from wherever they come. But how about providing more shots at those great jobs for Washington’s kids?
The Technology Alliance, along with many other partner organizations, has worked hard for the last decade to increase state funding for higher education in Washington, particularly in the high demand, high impact areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, often called the STEM disciplines. I can say that some real progress was made over the past two biennia, when the legislature modestly increased funding for degree programs in these fields.
Will we be able to hang on to these hard-won gains, or will the higher education budget get hammered in the 2009 legislative session?
If history is a guide, we have reason to be extremely concerned. Whenever we experience an economic downturn in Washington, we get a double whammy-sales tax revenues decline just as demands for state services go up. How do legislators balance the budget? They cut the one big area of the operating budget they are not legally mandated to pay for: higher education. During the 2001 recession, higher education took a 7.8 percent hit in the 2001-2003 biennial budget. With a shortfall of $3 billion and counting staring us in the face, we can expect even deeper cuts this time around.
We at the Technology Alliance believe that K-12 and higher education are the most important investments our state can make to grow and sustain a 21st century economy. To lose what modest gains we have made in the last couple of years-which just helps us stay out of the bottom 10 states in bachelor’s degree production-would be unconscionable, not to mention unwise. We really must invest in our future, especially during difficult times.
Remember: the new economy is based on two key components – great people and great ideas. These are the products of higher education. We plan to be very noisy about this in 2009 and encourage all of Xconomy’s readers to do the same.