STEM skills seeping into more blue-collar jobs
AUSTIN, Texas - The walls have started to rise in Austin, forming the shell of HID Global's new $35 million manufacturing, warehousing, distribution and customer service center.
The company has begun to hire the first handful of the 276 workers it pledged to employ in exchange for $3.5 million in local and state tax incentives, although it won't start hiring in earnest until later this year.
Yet already - months before the plant has installed its first machine or produced its first security or identity-authentication card - the expectations for its employee base reflect the widespread transformation sweeping through the U.S. workforce.
A Brookings Institution study released this month reports that the number of jobs that require proficiency in science, technology, engineering or math - often called the STEM fields - is much larger than previously considered.
Using a new, broader definition of STEM-related occupations, Brookings found that U.S. employers provided 26 million such jobs in 2011 - about 20 percent of the country's total nonfarm job base that year, the report said.
HID Global expects about 30 percent of its Austin factory jobs will require some sort of post-high school education, said general manager Jason Bohrer, and virtually all of those positions will require STEM skills.
"The tools have changed" as more and more information technology infrastructure is integrated into the manufacturing line, Bohrer said. "Some of the applications you might run on the factory floor have definitely increased in scope and complexity over the years."
To date, STEM-related careers have often been thought of in white-collar terms - the professor, computer programmer, engineer or accountant. But today, STEM skills are seeping into a much broader range of occupations, including many traditionally considered blue-collar.
"The definition of being an auto mechanic is a hell of a lot different now than it was 30 years ago," said Jon Hockenyos, principal of TXP, an Austin-based economic consulting firm.
Machinists in today's factories often rely on a range of specialized computer programming and math skills to operate modern manufacturing equipment. Those skills, the Brookings report argues, are every bit as STEM-intensive as those used by, say, a website programmer - and should be counted as such.
That ongoing diffusion of skills has sparked dozens of economic and workforce studies around the country, as labor researchers grapple to get a clearer view of how jobs are changing. It has also caught the attention of policymakers, educators and employers, hundreds of whom are in Austin this week for the U.S. News and World Report STEM Solutions annual conference.
The meeting is expected to bring together national, state and local education and employment experts to share ideas and discuss how to better equip the country's workforce for the rising number of jobs that require STEM skills.
U.S. News started the conference two years ago after noticing the rising call for STEM education in both its education and workforce coverage, said editor Brian Kelly.
Kelly and his colleagues found that many educators, policymakers and employers are keenly aware of the ongoing increase in STEM-related occupations, but much of the public remains oblivious to the shift. The country hasn't had a seminal phenomenon that has jolted the public awareness - as Sputnik did to spark the space race in the late 1950s and 1960s.
"We have a slow-motion crisis," he said. "The world is becoming more technological, but there's no Sputnik moment. ... You have 8 percent unemployment and 3 million open jobs - that seems like a crisis to me."
Yet it hasn't sparked public urgency. The Brookings report, titled "The Hidden STEM Economy," suggests the country has overlooked millions of jobs that pay well by focusing most of its energies on STEM-related careers that require at least a four-year degree.
"The overemphasis on four-year and higher degrees as the only route to a STEM career has neglected cheaper and more widely available pathways through community colleges and even technical high schools," the report said. "This neglect is all the more nonsensical given that roughly half of students who earn four-year STEM degrees start their education at community colleges."
Among its various recommendations, the Brookings report urged a heightened focus on education, including more attention to STEM fields in elementary and high schools, as well as the expansion of sub-bachelor's degree programs in STEM fields.
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Austin Community College has put many of the Brookings recommendations into practice. Its Early College Start program, for example, aims to stretch more college-level courses into high schools, with the hopes of graduating more students with the skills they need to enter the changing workplace.
Of ACC's 235-plus degrees and certificates, roughly half touch on at least one of the STEM fields, said Richard Rhodes, the college's president and CEO. In 2012, the college awarded more than 1,000 associate degrees or certificates in those STEM-related programs, according to its 2012-13 Fact Book.
"The growing expectation is that most of the employees in almost any enterprise will have some STEM-related skill sets necessary to be successful," Rhodes said. That is "a growing mandate in almost every job we've got," he said.
And in most cases, those STEM-related certificates and degrees lead to markedly higher wages than non-STEM jobs. Half of the 26 million STEM jobs nationwide are available to workers with less than a four-year college degree, and they pay annual wages of $53,000, on average - 10 percent higher than jobs with similar educational requirements, the Brookings report said.
Such wage premiums for workers with less than a bachelor's degree can have a particularly profound effect on a region, said Jonathan Rothwell, associate fellow at Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Project and author of the report.
"There are more blue-collar opportunities that are helping lower income inequality," he said. "So you see in places that score particularly high on that - like Baton Rouge (La.) and Birmingham (Ala.) - have less income inequality than you might expect, given the other characteristics of the metro area, because of those higher-paying blue-collar jobs."
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