Local view: STEM bill needs lawmakers' support

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Business and education leaders in Southwest Washington are building interest in science, technology, education and math (STEM) skills and occupations among the region's students. Building that interest will drive better performance in those subjects, lead to better jobs and lives for the students, and create a much-needed, high-quality workforce for our employers.

The key to this approach is to get kids into actual companies that use these skills every day, and get people from those companies into the schools so kids can understand the benefits of excelling at math and science.

Right now, we have a severe disconnect between the STEM jobs our economy is creating and the skills our students are learning. A recent Boston Consulting Group report found that there are 25,000 unfilled jobs in Washington because the state's residents don't have the right skills. That number could grow to 50,000 by 2017, the year the first of today's high school seniors will graduate from college. Equipped with the right skills, our homegrown students will compete for and win those jobs, our innovative companies will prosper, and our economy will grow. Without them, our students will lose out to graduates from elsewhere.

Danil's story

Danil Popov, a Uzbek immigrant living in Clark County, figured he would follow his dad and older brothers into the trades. But an internship at Frito-Lay opened his eyes to a broader world. He discovered a packing machine was sealing bags of chips too early, before they were full. Papov diagnosed the problem and helped devise the solution to recalibrating the machine. Now he's in his second year at Clark Community College, with plans to transfer to a four-year school and earn an engineering degree.

Experiences such as Danil's come through the NConnect internship program sponsored by the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council. By partnering with local companies such as Frito Lay, IQ Credit Union, and nLight, NConnect has served about 80 kids in Clark and Cowlitz counties each of the past two years. Vancouver-based SEH America, a world leader in silicon wafer manufacturing, supports another 70 interns per year, and has hired many of them. Many, many more of our students could benefit from similar experiences.

That's where Washington STEM's statewide system of regional STEM Networks comes in. The statewide nonprofit has an ambitious plan to build and connect regional networks of STEM professionals, educators and community leaders around the state in order to create these kinds of inspiring and practical learning opportunities for many more kids like Danil.

But codifying an internship model based on best practices and then building regional STEM networks to deploy that model at scale takes statewide coordination and resources. That's where we need help from the state of Washington. Gov. Jay Inslee supports a bill and that would help spread best practices to improve STEM education and create regional STEM networks across the state, calling for $10 million in state funding. That money is essential to expanding our successful internship program to serve 250 kids next year and building other programs like it around the state.

Unfortunately, the Legislature has not yet passed the bill or approved the governor's budget request. Some might say that the Legislature should focus on the most fundamental task it faces on education -- finding the money to provide K12 basic education. In the Southwest Washington area, a basic education without rigorous STEM elements does not prepare students for the modern workplace or a lifetime of opportunity.

As lawmakers debate the budget in Olympia, we urge the businesspeople, educators and parents of Southwest Washington to call or write their representatives and senators and urge them to support the governor's STEM legislation and budget request. Our kids need STEM skills and the future opportunities they will provide. Our businesses want homegrown employees with high-quality skills. Olympia, help us create a win for everyone.


Jeanne Bennett is executive director of the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council and a governance committee member of the Southwest Washington STEM Network.