The challenge of meeting a growing demand for skilled tech jobs is great. According to the Washington STEM Network, our state ranks third nationally in the concentration of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) jobs, and the number of STEM jobs in the state is expected to increase 24 percent by 2018. That equates to an anticipated 18,074 STEM-related jobs here in Southwest Washington by 2020.
The state also has the second-highest jobs skills gap in the nation, however, as currently 23,200 STEM jobs in Washington are going unfilled and it is anticipated this number will increase to 45,000 by 2017. In the absence of a strategy to close the gap, both job and business opportunities will be lost. Economic development partners in Southwest Washington have been responding to this challenge and are working hard to meet the needs of businesses that are increasingly dependent on STEM-skilled employees.
With the Vancouver-Camas Innovation Partnership Zone (IPZ) focused on increasing opportunities for applied digital technologies, our local tech community has been gaining more exposure, in turn unearthing some of the challenges unique to the tech sector. While this represents only a small slice of STEM opportunities in general, we find four main components are involved in efforts to meet the needs of the tech community: building the workforce pipeline, strengthening networks, place-making and telling our story.
Building the STEM pipeline in Southwest Washington
Employers generally find the talent they need in one of three ways: they can hire from an existing pool of local workers that have the skills needed, they can hire unskilled workers and train them, or they can attract talent from outside the area. The most timely and least expensive option for businesses is typically to hire an already skilled local workforce. In our area, education and workforce partners are working to meet this need on several fronts.
Our K-12 schools are nationally recognized as leaders in implementing innovative technology initiatives, and opportunities such as those offered at iTech Prep, HeLa High and the Clark County Skills Center demonstrate the commitment to give our students the skills they need to meet the needs of a 21st century economy. The Southwest Washington STEM Network is making further strides to increase opportunities for project-based learning, technology-enabled instruction and work-based learning experiences in partnership with private sector businesses and education leaders. The result of all of these efforts will be more local students exposed to STEM jobs early on, aware of opportunities in the industry and able to enter the workforce more prepared to succeed.
Our higher-ed partners are also actively training students to prepare for the increased demand. One example on the tech front is WSU Vancouver’s Creative Media and Digital Culture (CMDC) program. With more than 240 students currently enrolled, it is the third largest program in the college of liberal arts and the fastest growing program on campus. It also boasts the largest percentage of women in tech programs throughout the nation, with close to 48 percent of program participants female. With a 92-95 percent job placement rate for graduates, three quarters of which remain in the region, the demand for employees having these skill sets is clear.
Clark College currently has a new dedicated STEM building under construction and offers a wide range of STEM programs. Courses specific to computer technology and related fields include Computer Support, Graphic Design, Network Technology, Software Solutions Development, and Web Design & Development, as well as the ability to earn a bachelor’s degree in Technology from Eastern Washington University.
Last but certainly not least, the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council and its partners host a variety of opportunities for underemployed and unemployed workers looking to improve their STEM skills. They also work with employers to help offset some of the cost of training incumbent workers and new hires.
Making connections through lasting networks
Another way to attract and retain talent is to build strong networks where people can learn from each other and gain a sense of community and connectedness. The IPZ in Vancouver and Camas has been aggressive in efforts to help boost the local tech community. As their website states, “In the energetic offices of the downtown startups, in the aspiring classrooms and labs of WSU Vancouver and Clark College, and in the small business and global enterprises that dot the region – the new knowledge economy is right here in our backyard.”
One example of such an effort taking place is the Vancouver Tech Project, a self-organized, grassroots network that is helping to build connections between like-minded technology professionals and build the local talent pool.
The space and place that make a strong tech community
STEM employers, particularly tech companies, are increasingly relying on quality of place to attract and retain good talent. While most communities claim to have quality of place, the IPZ has done a deeper dive into learning what it takes to keep good talent here, and to attract others to our community. Access to transit, outdoor recreation, affordable office space and a vibrant downtown/urban core all emerged as being top factors that tech firms and talent look for. Clark County is a community of choices where rural and urban amenities are all available. Smart investments can be made by both the private and public sector to increase the STEM attractiveness of our area.
Telling the story
We are moving quickly into an era where STEM skills are the rule, not the exception. Clark County must be prepared to equip all of our students with the tools they need to be successful right here at home in the 21st century if we want to meet the demands of our local employers. As we build the capacity to meet the needs of today’s skilled jobs, we must continue to highlight the successes of our partners and the innovative ways our community is responding to the challenge to continue building on this momentum.
Mike Bomar is president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council (CREDC), a private-public partnership of over 140 investors and partners working together to advance the economic vitality of Clark County through business growth and innovation. For more information about the organization, visit www.credc.org.