In Forbes Magazine’s list of the nation’s fastest growing large cities released earlier this year, Austin, Houston and Dallas rounded out the top three, respectively, with San Antonio at ninth. A whopping 427,000 newcomers arrived in the Lone Star State between August 2011 and July 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
A lot of things can be attributed to this growth, including low unemployment rates, a business-friendly regulatory environment and no state income tax. But a critical component that cannot be ignored is our large pool of skilled workers from which companies can recruit.
That is why, without a doubt, the single most important factor in the continued economic health of our state is the ability to produce a workforce possessing the skills necessary for 21st century jobs, namely science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.
It also happens to be the greatest opportunity for our children’s future success.
The recently released 2012-2013 PayScale College Survey Report confirms that careers in STEM offer the best opportunities and most rewarding salaries for young people, with STEM careers dominating its list of top-tier salaries for entry-level through mid-career professionals.
In Texas, it’s estimated that the number of STEM jobs will grow by 22 percent between 2008 and 2018 — faster than in most states.
Yet while STEM jobs are in high demand all over the country, each year tens of thousands of these jobs go unfilled because employers simply can’t find qualified applicants. Our nation doesn’t just have a jobs problem. We’re suffering from a serious skills gap. That’s why we need to ensure our schools are properly preparing students to fill those future jobs.
This is about to become even more relevant in Texas, with legislation on the table that will likely alter high school testing and graduation requirements. Texas’ high school graduation rate has been on the rise, reaching 86 percent in 2011, among the highest rates in the country. We can’t afford to take a step backward. Whatever changes are made to our standardized testing policy, we must continue to insist on graduation requirements that are globally competitive. This is critical in helping more students enter two- and four-year colleges. More than 90 percent of Texas’ expected future STEM jobs will require post-secondary education.
We should also look outside of Texas at an innovative approach to connect education directly to jobs. In 2011, IBM collaborated with New York City schools and colleges to open the Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH, a program for grades 9 through 14 with a curriculum focused on STEM and workplace skills. P-TECH will graduate students with both a high school diploma and an associate degree in applied science or computer science.
Results at New York P-TECH have been extremely encouraging, and last fall, the city of Chicago opened five new schools modeled on P-TECH. These aren’t charter or magnet schools. They are open admission public schools that operate within existing budgets, and they can be replicated throughout the country.
At the federal level, there are two things that can be done to make it easier to expand this model to other states, and neither involves spending new money.
First, funding for our career and technical education programs should be put toward new programs that facilitate collaboration between educators and employers with the goal of linking education directly to jobs. The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act already provides funding for career and technical education. Reforms could encourage a new education model that is not only academically rigorous but economically viable.
Second, we should use a portion of existing federal work-study funds to create innovative apprenticeships and pre-professional internships that prepare students and graduates for careers by giving them an opportunity to test their skills in actual STEM-related jobs.
Texas has made great progress in recent years, both economically and in our education system. A focus on STEM skills is the best way to ensure we remain a national leader in job creation, investment and innovation, while giving our children the best hope for a bright future.