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Industry Experts: Supply Not Meeting Demand for STEM-Educated Workers

As Enumclaw hosted its first Expo Thursday promoting careers in science, technology, engineering and math, local leaders learn that those skills are vital for the continuation of American manufacturing as an industry that will sustain the U.S. economy.

Right now, there are advanced manufacturing employers in Washington state that are looking to fill solid, family-wage positions but they're not finding qualified candidates.

That was a significant takeaway from a luncheon Thursday sponsored by the Enumclaw Rotary Club, Enumclaw Schools Foundation and Farr Law Group that drew an array of representatives from various sectors of the community.

Preceding the first ever , the STEM Expo community luncheon was an opportunity for local political, business, education and cultural leaders to hear what the status was on advanced manufacturing in the state of Washington and think about how to optimize the local talent pool to possibly draw new employers to the area.

"We need a smarter nation of people," said Laura Hopkins, executive director of the state-funded Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC).

At some point over the course of American history, manufacturing has fallen by the wayside in favor of consumer and service-oriented industries, she said. Candidates looking to enter fields such as massage therapy don't need a strong math background, and mastery of those skills began to fall behind as well. The disadvantage of service industries, according to Hopkins, is that the wages are typically lower.

Both Technical and Soft Skills Sought

Michael Greenwood, a senior manager in Boeing's Commercial Airplanes division lamented that in many high schools today, career and technical education classes like wood shop and auto shop are no longer priorities.

Basic skills like being able to use tools with confidence, handling a drill adeptly or hammering a nail should be introduced at the middle school level to begin exposing students to career possibilities, he said. In fact, Boeing sees a noticeable number of applicants who have never handled such tools before, Greenwood said.

Soft skills, including working with integrity and high ethical standards, and knowing that there are consequences for making bad ethical choices, are just has vital, he said. This also includes being able to work well as a team and to think critically.

Critical thinking is the new reality of advanced manufacturing. Both Greenwood and Hopkins emphasized that gone are the days of dirty, sweaty, back-breaking manual labor or geeks with pocket protectors. Today, advanced manufacturing is "lean, clean, complex, ever-changing, and a welcome environment for men and women," Greenwood said.

Hopkins continued, those basic level skills are now done by machines. People are needed to problem solve and to troubleshoot those machines. "It's a high-tech job," she said.

The Apprenticeship Way

Greenwood told the audience that candidates with four-year degrees are still very important in his industry, but proper preparation through a technical college's two-year program could just as well lead to meaningful, family-wage jobs.

Both he and Hopkins touted the apprenticeship system, however as one option that is both an efficient use of the student's time and the employer's resources.

Greenwood said despite earning both an undergraduate and master's degree, his apprenticeship experience "was the best learning of my life."

Because it's on the job.

Hopkins describes the apprenticeship program through AJAC as one that is 93 percent on-the-job training, which includes immediate pay and benefits while the student is being mentored and earning credit for college should they decide to pursue a degree later. The other 7 percent is a one-night-a-week, four-hour class to go over the theories of what the students have been learning in their work.

AJAC works directly with employers who are seeking qualified job candidates to train people through apprenticeships as well as partnerships with local technical colleges for these positions.

Those partnerships are driven by industry, she said. There is a balance of demand for skilled workers and supply of jobs at the end of that training that dictates how many partnerships are created between AJAC, the employer and a community college.

Bringing it Home

A public-private partnership, therefore, is vital not only to developing a robust local workforce but in drawing employment opportunities to the community, Hopkins said.

“If you want a company to relocate to Enumclaw, you need the workforce ready for them," she said.

The demand is there. According to Greenwood, Boeing has hired 15,000 workers in the state of Washington alone in the last year and a half.

Currently, up to 50 percent of the existing employee base in advanced manufacturing can retire. "It's a scary thought," Hopkins said, because there is not the supply of workers to fill their places.

A good, skilled worker is not simply trained, she said. Their work, be it as a machinist, an engineer or technician is an art, and that needs to continue and be passed on to future workers.

"Manufacturing is one way for the U.S. economy to survive and grow in the global market," she said.

Enumclaw on the Pulse

Cognizant of the issues companies in the state of Washington have had finding qualified workers, the Enumclaw School District has in the past few years ratcheted up its science and math curriculums - particularly in the middle school level, said Schools Superintendent Mike Nelson.

The result has been a fundamental shift in student performance in these areas over a two-year period (read about this year's test score results). From providing more rigorous course options including AP classes for high school students to the Project Lead the Way STEM curriculum in middle school to the continuing success of the Enumclaw High School Robotics program three years running, "we didn't wait for the economy to change," said Nelson, despite lower funding for programs due to the recession.

The emphasis on tougher courses and tougher graduation requirements has led to a noticeable increase in the percentage of students graduating from Enumclaw High School to enter a four-year university. However, the district also continues to partner with Green River Community College and the Muckleshoot Tribe for further opportunities to enhance STEM education so students could make a quicker transition into the work force. "We believe a good public school system will build strong strands in both areas," Nelson said. "We want you to take pride in the school system we have here."

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