The End of a Recession, the Beginning of a Talent Crunch
The longest recession in U.S. history officially ended in June of this year, according to the National Bureau of Economic Statistics. Yet people in Washington State, even in the technology sector, are still feeling the pinch. Between July and August of this year, our state lost more than 9,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. With so much fear about job loss and focus on job creation, one would never imagine that we are at the beginning of a talent crunch that could have ripple effects for years to come. One has to only look at the long list of vacant engineering and technical jobs on local job sites to see that despite tough economic times, there is still a shortage of available technical professionals.
And we are only at the beginning. By 2011, an 18-year-long wave of baby boomer retirement begins. While pundits and politicians are focused on the impact to Social Security and Medicare, they’re overlooking another looming issue, the technology and engineering jobs that will need to be filled when these boomers retire. The pessimists believe these high paying jobs will simply disappear. Others think the younger generation, already more technologically savvy, will be inherently better equipped to fill these roles. While no one can predict the future, we do know that between 2010 and 2025 an estimated 77 million baby boomers in the U.S. workforce — citizens born between 1946 and 1965, will begin to retire. It’s also known that many of those jobs are the highly skilled, technology and engineering jobs that fuel the Washington economy.
In fact, 50 percent of our current engineering workforce in the U.S. is about to retire. That’s a staggering number when you consider how dependent our state is on those jobs. If we are to continue as a leading home for innovative, technology based businesses, we need to prepare our workforce for the jobs of the future. Pacific Northwest powerhouse companies like Amazon, Boeing, and Microsoft are looking for people with training and knowledge in math, science, engineering, computers and technology. Unfortunately, our state’s educational system is not equipped to effectively train students pursuing these careers. And so the gap between the high paying positions and the unemployed grows.
One of the primary challenges is simply getting young people interested in technical subjects. Proving to kids that algebra or physics will be useful in the real world isn’t easy, but it needs to be done. We must not limit enthusiasm for science and math to kids who are raised by a Microsoft mom or a Boeing dad. Everyone, regardless of economic status, should be exposed to science and math from an early age and inspired to compete for jobs with Amazon, Boeing, and Microsoft. We should be fostering the next generation of Northwest innovators by getting them excited about the possibilities now.
The reality is, schools and parents can’t solve the educational challenges alone. Fortunately for families in Washington we have FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an organization founded by inventor and entrepreneur, Dean Kamen, that inspires young people to be science and technology leaders.
FIRST engages students of all ages through mentor-based projects that build science, engineering and technology skills as well as practical communication and leadership skills. Through a robotics competition where teams from around the state compete with their robots against one another in a sports arena setting, students are exposed to hands-on technical skills that help them understand the value of pursuing an education in science and math. Our state has seen tremendous year-over-year growth in its FIRST program and is leading the nation in terms of number of robotics teams with more than 100 high school teams across the state from Bellingham to Vancouver and Port Angeles to Spokane. And FIRST pays off. About 55 percent of FIRST Robotics Competition students pursue degrees in engineering or science, compared to only 28 percent for those who have not had a FIRST experience.
Despite deep budget cuts, Washington State legislators and Gov. Gregoire doubled this year’s FIRST budget for middle and high schools to $300,000. These government leaders understand that investing in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education will eventually boost the state’s technology-based workforce. Washington companies like Microsoft and Boeing have also been working with these legislators and with FIRST on solutions to the looming workforce crisis.
As leaders in the technology community, I urge you to participate and support FIRST. A child’s world is only as big as his parents, friends and community make it. Outside of funding, what a program like FIRST needs most are volunteers, mentors, teachers and support from Washington’s vibrant technology community. With a little time and encouragement, every single one of us can make a difference by showing our kids how to take advantage of the opportunities that lie in front of them. After all, the inspiration and direction our youth experience while in the 4 years of high school directly impacts their next 45 years in the workforce. Let’s work together to close the workforce gap and ensure a bright future for our region.
For information about mentorship opportunities and to find a FIRST team to support, visit the FIRST of Washington website’s pinpoint map that has contact information for teams in your area.