Senate work session examines importance of STEM education


Delta High School students among those testifying via ground-breaking technology live from Columbia Basin College    

A work session held this morning by the Senate Trade and Economic Development Committee examined the importance of having a skilled and well-educated workforce and took an in-depth look at the role of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in preparing students to fill the skills gap in the job market.

“Washington has a significant and growing gap between jobs that are in high demand and a workforce trained and ready to fill these high-paying, family wage jobs in STEM-related fields,” said Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick and chair of the committee. “I think there is consensus among educators, lawmakers and the general public that we must make STEM education a priority; today we heard from several individuals who are on the ground, working to improve the readiness of tomorrow’s workforce.”

Dave Wallace, research manager with the state Workforce Training and Education Coordination Board and Randy Spaulding, director of academic affairs and policy at the Washington Student Achievement Council testified about the Skilled and Educated Workforce Report put together jointly by their agencies. “Here in Washington we have a higher makeup of STEM jobs than nationally – almost 14 percent of jobs in the state are STEM jobs,” Wallace explained. “Secondly, we project a higher growth rate – 20 percent compared to 17 percent nationally over a ten-year period. And lastly, when we focus on those openings due to growth, 17 percent of those in this period we expect to be in STEM.”

While Washington is seeing growth in some areas, Wallace and Spaulding testified the growth in job opportunities has outpaced the growth in the number of students educated to fill those jobs. Kathy Goebel with the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges explained the important role of community and technical colleges in meeting the demand for more STEM-educated students.

“The STEM professions face the most critical needs among all of our employer groups in terms of finding qualified and highly trained employees,” said Goebel. “Eighty percent of the more than 25,000 jobs that have stayed vacant for more than three months, due to the inability of employers to find skilled candidates, came from high-demand STEM and health-care fields.

“Employers need multiple levels of STEM education, including short-term training certificates, associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees. The community and technical colleges produce talented graduates at all of these levels to enter STEM fields directly into employment or to transfer into four-year programs. Thirty-five percent of all STEM bachelor’s degree graduates started at a technical or community college.”

Brown agreed and pointed to the benefit these students are having in the Tri-Cities. “Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is doing a ton of research in nanotechnology; students from our community and technical schools are leading the way in some of that research,” said Brown.  “We have the opportunity and are perfectly positioned to grow our own workforce and develop a pipeline for those jobs currently waiting for qualified candidates.” The work session also featured testimony from people outside of Olympia. Among those testifying from the remote-testimony center at Columbia Basin College were:

  • Columbia Basin College President Rich Cummins;
  • Jenny Rodriguez, principal, Delta High School, along with several Delta students;
  • Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform, Washington Policy Center;
  • Gabriela Whitemarsh of Columbia Basin College, with students in the MESA Program;
  • Representatives of the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce and-City Regional Chamber of Commerce; and
  • Paul Randall, principal with the Tri-Tech Skills Center.

“This work session enabled us to take a tremendous step forward in giving citizens east of the Cascades an opportunity to make their voices heard by a legislative committee,” said Brown. “A lot of the credit for making this happen goes to Dr. Rich Cummins, the president at Columbia Basin College, and Jason Mercier from the Washington Policy Center.  They really stepped up to make the logistics work, and set an example for the role other community colleges can play in making remote testimony a reality.

“I look forward to utilizing this technology even more to expand access to state government.”