It’s an issue that refuses to go away — the difficulty in finding, hiring, and keeping skilled labor. The issue has been raised across various industries in Whatcom County lately such as health care and manufacturing sectors and consistently in the “high tech” sector.
Many industries are now competing for employees with technology and science skills. Jobs in the technology and science occupations account for some of the fastest-growing occupations in Northwest Washington. Occupations such as chemical, mechanical, civil, electronics and software engineers, architects, and physicians have expected average annual growth rates of at least 2.8 percent through 2014.
Between 2007 and 2012, Washington’s Employment Security Department predicts that 47 percent of the openings in our state that require a bachelor’s degree will come in the fields for computer specialists, engineers, medical researchers, life scientists, nurses and secondary teachers but only 14 percent of students graduating from our schools are earning degrees in these fields, resulting in an acute shortage.
Our local shortfall tracks a national trend. The baby boomers are retiring and the population is aging. Our educational priorities today are out of sync with the needs of our economy and our graduates are not prepared to fill the jobs our employers are creating. As the “point person” for the local high-tech sector, I want to share some of my insights on these problems, and to point at some solutions.
Invest in education
Science and technology education must start early and continue strongly; current results are not good enough. A 2007 study by The Partnership for Learning found that more than half of the students that go straight into a two-year college after high school need remedial courses before they are allowed to take credit-bearing courses. There is a disconnect between our state’s high school diploma and the skills needed to enter and succeed at a job certification program, a two-year community or technology college or four-year college. The goal must be to align high school graduation requirements with preparation for 21st-century work and college.
By far the largest problem in preparing our students is lack of proficiency in mathematics and science. Bellingham schools achieve above state averages on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning with 69 percent meeting the WASL in 4th grade (versus 58 percent state average) and 65 percent in 10th grade (versus 50 percent). This can be compared to the state leader, Pullman, with 80 percent and 78 percent respectively.
How do we encourage students to do better? Since 2006 the Technology Alliance Group (TAG) has run a pilot program at Whatcom Middle School called Math Masters, bringing business people to tutor middle school students in math. This program is just in its infancy but hopefully sends a strong message to students and parents that the local business community wants to see our children succeed — and we believe they need math and science to do that.
Another aspect is to attract students to math and science subjects. Whatcom Tech Prep offers a popular new educational program on Video Game Design to local high school students. This unique instructional program has math as a prerequisite and also offers the opportunity for high school students to earn college credit.
Higher education, business partnerships
Closer collaboration between the educational system and business can help ensure a greater number of skilled individuals will be directed toward high- demand occupations. As a business owner you can reach out to talent emerging from our local colleges by offering internship and job-shadow opportunities. You can also serve on advisory boards to assist colleges in developing curricula and certificate programs specific to your industry needs. As examples: TAG members partnered with Bellingham Technical College to develop a Technical Sales Specialist Certificate program in 2005, and last year we worked with WWU’s Extended Education Program to develop a SQL Server Specialist Certificate — a program which filled to capacity in its first year.
Training and growth opportunities for those already in the workforce is another key to filling the labor gap. Business and management models are slowly adapting to the notion that ongoing training is fundamental to 21st-century work. Likewise, people in the workforce are increasingly growing their skillset and changing careers to meet market demands and their own interests.
Technical and professional degree programs address some needs; corporate, technical, and even informal education sources address others. Trade associations are an excellent source of insight across the range of lifelong learning, especially those that address specific fields and interests.
TAG is a trade association for technology companies.
TAG holds monthly lunch meetings bringing in keynote speakers on technology topics. We also help organize Special Interest Groups for different groups of IT professionals. We currently support two groups: Microsoft .Net and Security. Independent groups such as Bellingham Linux Users Group also provide excellent learning opportunities.
There is no quick solution to overcome the skilled labor shortage. Instead, employers will have to develop and implement creative HR strategies and practices such as looking beyond the traditional pools of talent when recruiting, and providing flexible work arrangements including telecommuting and part-time work.
Finally, I would like to point you to a traditional and time-tested source for finding talent — career fairs. If you are looking for information technology professionals consider participating in TAG’s technology career fair, Bellingham TechNight, on May 20.
For more information, please visit www.tagnw.org.
Anna Ehnmark is executive director of TAG, the Technology Alliance Group for Northwest Washington. TAG’s mission is to promote, educate and advocate for technology businesses and IT professionals. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.