Open Doors to Opportunity for Washington’s Future STEM Leaders

Opinion

It’s no secret our region is a hotbed for innovation, leading corporations, and a growing startup community.

As a state, we’ve undergone massive changes in recent years, becoming a thriving tech hub that is now the nation’s per-capita leader in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) employment (PDF) . But as demand for STEM workers increases, a disconnect is emerging: our students are not the ones filling Washington’s STEM workforce. According to research from the Boston Consulting Group and The Washington Roundtable, only 9 percent of Washington students will land STEM jobs in the state. The deck is stacked even higher against low income students: only 4 percent will enter STEM careers.

This disparity has nothing to do with aptitude and everything to do with access to opportunity, and it is putting the longevity of our regional economic health at risk.

Closing this gap requires a multi-pronged solution that improves access to STEM education at every stage of the academic journey, particularly during the transition from high school to college. For low-income students, one of the main reasons cited for not pursuing STEM careers is inability to afford postsecondary education. This scenario is personally familiar to me, as I faced a similar financial barrier when I was a young adult: I did not have the opportunity to go to college immediately after high school because my family could not afford it. I have since made it my mission to break down the financial barriers around higher education in Washington tate, particularly for STEM education.

I’m not the only one with this mission: Over the past couple of years, Washington’s most prominent organizations have pulled together to break the cycle of poverty for low-income students in the state by investing in the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS), a unique program that supports a diverse group of low- and middle-income students pursuing STEM careers. Geeks Give Back, WSOS’s annual giving campaign hosted by Bank of America and GeekWire, raised more than $1.2 million in corporate and individual donations from organizations like Costco, Alaska Airlines, Microsoft, Boeing, and Bank of America. Through December 7, all donations up to $250,000 were matched 100 percent by the Rubens Family Foundation and by the State of Washington. Since its inception in 2011, WSOS has received more than $90 million in private contributions.

The pathway to STEM careers for Washington State students must be improved, and an investment of this proportion from our region’s political and business leaders shows that WSOS is a critical part of the solution.

A Pathway to STEM Careers

WSOS was created in 2011 to address unfilled jobs in the high-demand sectors that drive our economy like aerospace, engineering, technology, and health care, as well as rising tuition costs at Washington colleges and universities. Businesses and the Washington State Legislature joined forces to create a public-private partnership that fulfills the promise of better education and career opportunities for Washington students. The first-of-its-kind program has seen enormous success: more than 6,800 students have received funding from WSOS to support their STEM and health care degrees since its inception, and more than 80 percent of scholarship recipients have graduated and went on to land a job or pursue an advanced degree in their field.

For the students who receive scholarships, the program is life-changing. When Jordana Dahmen received her acceptance letter to Washington State University, her excitement was weighed down by the harsh reality of her situation: there was no way she or her family could afford to pay her tuition. WSOS offered a long-term solution. Jordana’s scholarship isn’t just for a year or two—it has supported her for four years now and increased in amount as she progressed in her credit standing and once she was acceptance to her major program. For students pursuing STEM-related degrees that require rigorous studying time, this is a game-changer. It gives students the financial freedom to focus on their studies and finish their degrees.

Jordana is now a junior biology major at Washington State University and is applying to Ph.D. programs in biomechanics. She plans on continuing her research to bring technological advances to physical and mental health diagnoses and advanced treatments for patients; a pathway made possible, in part, with support from WSOS.

Closing the STEM Skills Gap

WSOS is not just changing the lives of low-and middle-income students, it’s also investing in the high-demand STEM workforce that Washington State needs to be successful for years to come. As increasingly more jobs in STEM fields are created across the state, businesses are struggling to find qualified candidates. A 2013 study found that 25,000 jobs in Washington go unfilled due to a lack of qualified candidates, with approximately 80 percent of these unfilled jobs in highly-skilled STEM disciplines and health care. This is forcing businesses to recruit from out-of-state, hire underqualified employees or move jobs out of Washington State.

We have the talent in Washington State to fill our available STEM and health care positions, but the education and training needed to qualify for these positions is not widely accessible. For the sake of our students’ futures and the strength of the state’s vibrant economy, we must continue to work together to find a long-term solution. I think WSOS is a critical component of that solution, and based on the success of the Geeks Give Back campaign, so do many other business leaders in Washington State.

Gary is a private investor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist based in the Seattle area. He has 25 years of experience in startups, business acquisition, commercial real estate investing, and running large-scale businesses. Follow @garyrubens

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