A skilled and educated workforce is essential to a vibrant and prosperous economy in the Wenatchee area and across Washington. Our state is fortunate to have a dynamic economy driven by a growing number of innovative employers and a flourishing tech sector. Throughout North Central Washington, the healthcare, education, agriculture and hydro-power energy sectors of our economy depend on a skilled and educated workforce.

Washington has been ranked No. 1 for business, with the nation’s fastest-growing economy, No. 2 in the concentration of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) jobs, number three in STEM job growth and among the top states in technology innovation and the percentage of workforce in tech industries.

Locally, in 2018 the Milken Institute ranked Wenatchee 15th in the overall top 200 Best Performing Cities report which considers factors like: job growth, wage growth, and high-tech growth in the rankings. Wenatchee ranked number four in terms of “high-tech” GDP growth.

Nationally, U.S. employers continue to create jobs, as well. The Labor Department recently reported that job openings jumped 2.4 percent in December 2018 to 7.3 million — the most since records began in December 2000. Employers added 304,000 jobs in December 2018, the most in a single month in nearly a year. Outside of our state, the country continues to experience job growth, creating competition for our companies for a skilled and educated workforce.

Within our state, our economy is thriving with 740,000 projected job openings in the coming years. The majority of these jobs will be in STEM-related occupations requiring post-secondary education and training.

However, statewide data masks a complex regional narrative in which prosperity is spread unevenly, and some communities — including many in rural areas — are outright struggling. Across the state, communities need infrastructure, workforce talent, a policy climate that supports innovation, and investments in multiple STEM education pathways.

With multiple pathways to these STEM jobs — post-secondary certification programs, two-year technical degrees and four-year university degrees — our young people will be poised to lead the way for the nation in fields as varied as clean energy, computer science, engineering, advanced manufacturing, agriculture and natural resources, horticulture, health care and medical research.

Unfortunately, Washington trails most states in establishing a culture that promotes — an education pipeline that supports — post-secondary education and training for all students. Only an estimated 40 percent of Washington high school students go on to attain a post-secondary credential by age 26. Washington currently ranks 42nd in the nation for degree attainment, putting our students, businesses and communities at risk of falling behind.

The market demand for a skilled and an educated workforce far exceeds our state’s ability to produce the workforce needed for current and projected jobs. Washington continually ranks toward the top of the list of states that import talent from other states to fill jobs.

To ensure that our youth and adults are prepared to compete for exciting new careers in this STEM-driven economy, it is imperative that we expand and improve STEM education and career-connected learning opportunities from birth through post-secondary education, as well as through innovative retraining programs for adults who left the education system before completing a high school diploma or post-secondary credential.

Our state is making progress in preparing students for success in Washington jobs. But major gaps exist that we must fix if we are to meet workforce demands. Here are some areas of progress and where growth is needed:

Alignment of STEM Education Programs with Workforce Demand

We have made progress in raising the number of Washington higher education graduates earning degrees in STEM fields, but the percentage is still too low to meet workforce needs. More than one-fourth (28 percent) of bachelor’s degrees awarded at Washington public schools and private institutions in 2017 were in STEM subjects, up from 22 percent in 2012. STEM degree and long-term certificate completions have shown steady increases in recent years (2013-17).

♦ Two-year degree and certificate completions in STEM fields increased by more than 14 percent.

♦ Four-year degree completions in computer and information science grew by 70 percent, in engineering by 4 percent, and in health care by 26 percent.

♦ Graduate degree and certificate completions in computer and information science grew by 87 percent, in engineering by 41 percent, and in health care by 13 percent.

However, many STEM programs remain highly selective and limited enrollment capacity remains a barrier in some fields, particularly in computer science. The rapidly growing workforce demand is still outpacing STEM degree production.

♦ In computer science, out of a total of more than 9,000 annual job openings, there will be nearly 6,000 more openings than there are graduates completing degree programs prepared to take them.

♦ In engineering, out of a total of about 2,500 annual job openings, there will be more than 400 more openings than there are graduates prepared to fill them.

♦ In health care, out of a total of more than 11,000 annual job openings, there will be nearly 1,400 more openings than there are graduates prepared to fill them.

Underrepresented Populations Continue to Face Challenges in STEM

A gender imbalance in STEM achievement tends to widen as students move through the pipeline.

♦ Among pre-K students, girls tend to do as well as boys in math, with about 66 percent demonstrating “kindergarten readiness” in the 2017-18 WaKIDS assessment.

♦ As they advance in their education, however, interest and achievement in key STEM subjects tends to fade for female students. In 2018, only 46 percent of students completing AP calculus exams and 27 percent of students completing AP computer science exams were female.

♦ Male students also complete STEM degrees in greater numbers than female students. In 2017, only 35 percent of students completing associate degrees or bachelor’s degrees in STEM were female and only 22 percent completed degrees in computer science.

Students from low-income and minority families are disadvantaged at all stages in the STEM pipeline

♦ Among low-income pre-K students, only 50 percent demonstrated “kindergarten readiness” in math in 2017-18.

♦ Smarter balanced math scores for low-income and underrepresented minority students are low compared to other groups. Among low-income students, only 42 percent of 3rd graders, 32 percent of 5th graders, and 30 percent of 8th graders met the standard in 2018. The percentages are even lower for Hispanic/Latino and Black/African American students.

♦ AP exam pass rates in key STEM subjects are also low for underserved minority students. In 2018 only 49 percent of Hispanic/Latino students and 44 percent of Black/African American students passed AP calculus exams.

Solutions to prepare all Washington students for success in the Washington Economy

From the Pacific Coast to Eastern Washington, our economy is rooted in innovation. We employ more than 9 percent of the state’s total workforce in the STEM sector. Of Washington’s top 25 occupations in 2018 11 were STEM-related and comprise more than half (approximately 28,000) of the nearly 48,000 open jobs across the state.

It is clear that many Washingtonians are not on a path to participate in our growing economy. To achieve an innovative and dynamic workforce, and to address gaps between degree production and employer demand in key fields, we recommend the following actionable goals:

♦ Inspire youth through career connected and real-world STEM learning opportunities (Career-Connected Learning). These opportunities expand learning from kindergarten to postsecondary education and provide students and young people direct experience with existing and emerging STEM industries, jobs and careers.

♦ Provide every K-12 student equitable access to computer science education. In North Central Washington, the North Central Educational Service District, in partnership with the Microsoft TEALS program, is leading an effort to increase the number of school districts offering computer science. Since 2017, this opportunity increased the number of participating schools from 11 to 18. The Apple STEM Network is currently working to align pathways for rural students that will improve their transition to Wenatchee Valley and Big Bend Colleges and Central Washington University.

♦ Prepare Washington’s future workforce by increasing attainment of technical credentials, apprenticeships, two- and four-year degrees.

♦ Improve equity by implementing interventions to close educational opportunity gaps from cradle to career, providing world-class preparation and support for STEM teachers, and improving workforce diversity.

♦ Maintain the state’s commitment to rigorous learning standards, assessments, and high school graduation requirements.

♦ Ensure Washington’s youngest learners enter school ready to learn and excel, with a focus on the state’s investment in high-quality early learning options for low-income students, with the intent of fully funding the state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program by 2022-23.

♦ Expand early learning math literacy programs. Research shows children’s interest and enthusiasm for math begins long before kindergarten. The best time to cultivate confidence in math is during these early years. STEM Networks across the state are participating in the Washington Early Math Coalition, working to identify resources and systems supporting early math learning, as well as high-leverage opportunities where new investments would yield the largest return on investment for children and families.

♦ Champion the State Need Grant (Washington Promise Scholarship). This crucial support for the state’s low-income undergraduate students who are pursuing degrees or retraining and gaining credentials for careers is necessary to promote equitable access and opportunity to STEM education in Washington.

The future is bright for our local economy and state, but only if we invest in our students, from pre-K through postsecondary education, in STEM-literacy and in their preparation to engage in the skilled and educated workforce. A postsecondary credential is the single most reliable path to economic success for individuals, as well as to the prosperity of communities and of our state.

Technology continues to alter the workforce and educational landscape. Whether it be virtual reality, coding language, drone technology, or 3D printing, a postsecondary credential provides the education and experience necessary for a skilled and educated workforce — and the success of our students.

The need to build a regional and statewide strategic vision focused on industries with the capacity to stimulate sustained growth and prosperity is imperative. Creating a skilled and educated workforce is crucial to achieving this vision. Regions that better link education and training programs to workforce needs of employers will attract and retain businesses and create more opportunities for residents to engage and prosper in the new knowledge and innovation-based economy.

Dr. Gene Sharratt co-chairs Washington State’s STEM Education Innovation Alliance. In addition, he is the Executive Director for the OSPI/AESD Professional Learning Network, and a member of the College Promise Coalition. Dr. Sue Kane is Co-Director of the Apple STEM Network and a member of the STEM Education Innovation Alliance.