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Educators work to shrink STEM job skills gap

Jenny Hottle//June 13, 2014

Educators work to shrink STEM job skills gap

By Jenny Hottle

//June 13, 2014

Maryland continues to lead the country in technology and entrepreneurship, ranking first for the third year in a row in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s annual Enterprising States report.

The state ranked first for its high STEM job concentration, academic research and development activity. Nationally, jobs in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, math — are among the fastest-growing fields, according to the report. But with that comes an increasing disconnect between the skills employers require and the skills workers have entering those industries.

Area entrepreneurs and employers say Baltimore and the state are working to close this gap through increased focus on STEM field-related skills and education.

“The city and Maryland have a high need for computer skills, computer literacy, people who are ready to jump into these government jobs and cybersecurity,” said Deborah Tillett, president of the Emerging Technology Centers, a nonprofit business incubator. “And lots of time entrepreneurship is driven by technology. You need those skills’ workers. But Baltimore has been ahead of the curve.”

About 217,000 STEM workers make up 7.7 percent of the state’s employed population, the most concentrated STEM workforce in the country, according to the report. Maryland ranks third in the country for its talent pipeline, connecting secondary schools and colleges to local and national businesses.

In Baltimore, several technology education startups mentor students and help them gain entrepreneurial and programming skills to pursue STEM jobs. The Digital Harbor Foundation teaches teenagers coding, circuitry and game development. SeeFuture connects students with professional mentors.

“Lots of people are trying to go after these fields,” Tillett said. “We certainly have those kinds of jobs available, and people are trying to fill them.”

At nonprofit group , low-income and unemployed people can take IT certification courses and gain technical field experience. Certificate recipients have gone on to work for companies such as Lockheed Martin Corp. and Verizon.

One hurdle that stands in the way of filling the job skills gap is experience, Digit All Systems CEO Lance Lucas said. Employers are more likely to hire someone with one or two years of experience than someone who just has a certificate or degree, he said.

“Education hasn’t quite caught up with the job market,” Lucas said. “We have to have companies lead the way. Employers have to work with the schools to let them know what they need right now.”

More than 44 percent of CEOs say there is also a gap in “soft skills,” such as communication, critical thinking and collaboration, according to the Enterprising States report. Schools in the state are working to combat this issue.

In fall 2012, the University of Maryland updated its general education requirements for undergraduates as a response to employer concerns. Doug Roberts, associate dean for general education, said the university often reviews national reports and surveys employers about what skills they value. One finding: Students weren’t doing well in job interviews because they lacked strong communication skills.

The university’s revised general education program includes courses that teach oral and written communication, complex problem solving and analytical reasoning.

“The skills tend to be universal,” Roberts said. “You’re not just regurgitating answers from a book or what a professor said in front of a classroom. The courses require you to take a stand and justify it, foster critical thinking analysis and form an opinion.”

Ultimately, filling the skills gap could create more jobs, lower the unemployment rate and generate revenue, according to the Enterprising States report. But policymakers are looking at new ways of investing in communities, and employers are improving their ways of targeting their resources and the education system, said Jason Tyszko, senior director of policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Center for Education and Workforce.

“In the case of Maryland, which has scored high on this report, there’s great STEM activity taking place,” Tyszko said. “But the skills gap and the states it may threaten are ones where STEM activity is high. Those are the ones that need to be on guard. You need to address those talent pipelines.”


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