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Inslee, Jackson, and New Report on Washington’s STEM Skills Shortfall

Xconomy Seattle — 

Washington state has a well-known mismatch between the tech industry’s demand for workers and the state education system’s ability to provide them.

A new report released Tuesday at the Washington STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Summit points to the causes and potential solutions to that mismatch, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said solving the state’s education funding “crisis” will be his first priority in the coming legislative session.

Attendees at the summit, held on Microsoft’s headquarters campus in Redmond, WA, also heard from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who is in Seattle this week to further a campaign of his Rainbow PUSH Coalition to highlight the tech industry’s lack of diversity, and support racial justice protesters in the wake of the Ferguson grand jury decision.

The report, prepared by the Boston Consulting Group, examines the entire educational pipeline in Washington state, from pre-kindergarten through university, and deems it leaking.

“We estimate that only nine out of 100 children born in Washington will ultimately end up as employees in a STEM-related field in the state—far fewer than the number of people needed for those jobs,” the report’s authors write. “The situation is worse for low-income students. Trying to fill great jobs with a leaky human-capital pipeline is like living in a boomtown without enough roads, electricity, or water.”

Inslee framed the problem this way: For each computer science degree produced in the state, there are 27 jobs available. “We are not filling these jobs with our sons and daughters,” Inslee said. “We like sons and daughters to come to our state and build new businesses, but we like our children even better.”

Jackson, meanwhile, focused on what he describes as a lack of opportunity in STEM fields for women and people of color, starting at the top. He said that of the 189 board members in the top 20 biotech and technology companies, there are 36 women, three African Americans, and one Latino.

“That does not reflect our talent pool. Doesn’t reflect opportunity,” Jackson said. “Women and people of color … are not the minority. We are the majority. And there is no talent deficiency.”

He added, “What separates us today is opportunity.”

That connected to a theme of the Boston Consulting Group report, titled “Opportunity for All: Investing in Washington State’s STEM Education Pipeline.” Its authors found that low-income students are significantly less prepared than their affluent peers for STEM jobs, and that only one in five STEM employees in Washington are black or Hispanic.

The report highlights five “choke points” in the pipeline: Lack of preparedness for kindergarten, particularly for early math learning due to a lack of affordable preschool; poor academic performance overall in K-12 education, and a lack of interest and/or proficiency in STEM subjects; lack of capacity in Washington universities’ STEM majors, and the high cost of higher education; failure to complete STEM degrees; and a failure to find jobs in STEM fields in Washington.

Resolving these issues, the report’s authors assert, would cost some $650 million, but would yield economic and social-equity benefits including increased jobs, tax revenue, and salaries in the state, as well as reductions in poverty and unemployment, and an increase in women and minorities in STEM fields.

Looking ahead to the 2015 legislative session, Inslee warned that his opponents would propose an “education first” budget, paying for K-12 education at the level ordered by the Washington Supreme Court in the McCleary decision, but cutting elsewhere—perhaps in higher education, early learning, and other social services—rather than doing the difficult work of finding billions of dollars of new education funding. He called this “dangerous rhetoric.”

“We’ve got to take care of the whole pipeline,” Inslee said. “We’ve got to start with investment in early childhood education. We’ve got to have solid STEM programs in our K-12 program. And we’ve got to have additional computer science slots in our universities so we can move forward.”