By Michelle Kavanaugh
The Dec. 1 Another Voice column, “Proposed visa changes hurt STEM workforce,” focused on the need for foreign-born employees with college degrees to fill STEM jobs in the United States.
We strongly agree with the premise that the U.S. labor market suffers a severe shortage in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs and that more needs to be done to meet this shortage. However, the visa issue only addresses the professional STEM labor force that requires a minimum four-year degree.
The greatest demand for STEM workers is in jobs that do not require a professional degree. Often called middle-skills jobs, they form the backbone of the region’s growing high-tech and medical sectors.
While professional STEM jobs are a concern, the majority of STEM jobs are in advanced manufacturing and the growing medical sector.
In-demand positions such as electrical engineering technicians, medical and clinical lab technicians and machinists are essential to the region’s economic revitalization. They do not require a professional degree to enter the field and they can provide a living wage.
Part of the WNY STEM Hub’s mission is to stimulate dialogue and action between education providers and employers that ensure today’s students have access to the right training to meet our region’s employment needs and to assure that education opportunities continue to support lifelong career advancement.
Earlier this year, WNY STEM Hub, along with Monroe County Community College’s Economic Development and Innovative Workforce Services Division, released the “Measuring Middle Skills Occupational Gaps Within the WNY Regional Economy” study, which was sponsored by the State University of New York Training and Education in Advanced Manufacturing Project.
Two key findings ring loud alarms: Within the next 10 years some technical occupations will lose almost 25 percent of their workforce due to retirement, and the current completion (graduation) rate in these fields will supply only 63.1 percent of the workers needed for current demands.
The focus on preparing degree-credentialed STEM professionals as a national priority must be supplemented by addressing the workforce gap for technically trained individuals. Encouraging high school and college students to consider certificate programs or two-year degrees to launch their careers in high-demand technical and medical sectors will more effectively meet STEM workforce needs.
The next-generation workforce will have ample opportunity to earn a family-sustaining salary and launch a lucrative and fulfilling career here in Western New York. Our region enjoys a wealth of training programs and academic pathways that must be coordinated and aligned with high-demand STEM jobs, both professional and technical.
Michelle Kavanaugh, Ph.D., is president and acting executive director of WNY STEM Hub.