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Washington Roundtable lays out ‘skills gap’ report showing need to fill 25,000 jobs

Post by Brad Shannon / The Olympian on March 27, 2013 at 7:02 pm | No Comments »
March 29, 2013 4:05 pm
Steve Mullin
Steve Mullin

Washington state lost more than 200,000 jobs during the Great Recession, and as the state keeps bouncing back there are signs Washington has a mismatch between the skills of the workforce and the jobs that are opening up. A new report from the Washington Roundtable, which is made up of business executives, says the region’s business community has 25,000 new jobs it is in acute need of people to fill them.

All told, 20,000 or about 80 percent of the total jobs deemed to have “acute” skills gaps are in nursing or computer science fields. A job opening is considered acute if it is left open for more than three months because of a lack of qualified applicants.

The  Roundtable, which put out its report Wednesday, hired The Boston Consulting Group to survey businesses in the state about their hiring needs. The biggest share of unfilled jobs – 8,400 – was in health care but another 8,000 are in high tech positions requiring a computer science background, according to Roundtable president Steve Mullin and Jana Carlisle, executive director of the group’s educational policy arm, the Partnership for Learning.

Both Mullin and Carlisle sat down with reporters near the Capitol Campus to talk over the report and its implications for policymakers. The full report is here and the Roundtable’s press release is here.

They outlined five major steps that, its members believe, can help fill 160,000 jobs across the board by 2017, while boosting the number of graduate with STEM degrees – the shorthand term for the fields of  science, technology, engineering or math.

The steps, quoting from the news release, are:

1. Increase computer science, engineering and health care capacity and throughput at colleges and universities in Washington.

2. Foster STEM interest and performance among K-12 students.

3. Improve alignment of technical degree and certificate curricula with employer demands.

4. Promote and enable in-bound migration of skilled workers from other states.

5. Support expansion of international immigration opportunities.

Mullin said many of the ideas will require a sustained effort by the state and Legislature over years. But one of the quickest steps to get results is to provide more opportunities in four-year colleges to acquire degrees in the STEM fields.

Today some 1,200 potential students in those fields are turned away for lack of space, but adding enrollment slots could provide some immediate relief of the problem, he said.

Cost estimates for providing such extra enrollment slows are in the millions of dollars, but the report suggests that filling the jobs gap could generate a lot more jobs in other fields – generating $720 million in yearly state tax revenues by 2017 and $80 million more for local governments in the report’s largest estimates.

Universities were given tuition-setting authority a few years ago and also differential tuition – the ability to charge more for high-cost, high-demand fields like engineering. But lawmakers have frozen the differential tuition, and Mullin said that while that may make sense for a couple of years it would be “draconian” to bar it permanently.

Mullin said some larger corporations are able to recruit outside the state more easily than smaller and medium ones. One software firm cited in the report is Concur, a Bellevue-based firm that provides software for businesses to keep track of travel and other expenses.

The report says the firm’s chief operating officer, Rajeev Singh, wants to grow the firm form 600 to 1,000 local employees by 2016. But to attract the engineering talent, the report says Concur has opened five “development centers” in the U.S. and around the world and has had to be flexible in allowing jobs elsewhere. According to the report:

“As a result, the company estimates that by 2016, 150 new jobs – 30 percent of the new jobs planned for Washington – could end up located elsewhere if talent is not readily accessible.’’

Mullin said firms like to hire local talent because it is more likely to stay and that the companies cited are interested in improving their communities. The report says the high earnings for computer science majors provide a large job multiplier of 4.6 jobs per every one created in the high-tech industry.

State lawmakers have cut higher education investments in recent years, in effect cutting the level of state support for major research universities in half – some of which has been made up for by jacking up tuition rates and blunting the impact on students by offering more financial aid.

One week ago Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner of Spokane and other members of the Majority Coalition Caucus that controls the state Senate pledged to put out a budget that puts more funds into higher education – while allowing a 3 percent reduction in tuition.

There is some question how much new money is in the MCC’s proposal – compared to current spending. But Mullin said the commitment to avoid further cuts in higher education itself is an improvement after the recent rounds of cuts.

Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to lay out some of his spending priorities and a plan to raise more revenue for public schools – and presumably universities – Thursday morning.

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