Conference seeks ways to close widening high-tech skills gap

By Matt Wickenheiser, BDN Staff
Posted March 19, 2012, at 7:38 p.m.

Policy conversations about issues plaguing Maine’s economy have moved beyond energy prices and taxes.

People now are aware of a dearth of science, technology, engineering and math graduates coming from Maine colleges and going into the state’s high-tech work force. This growing shortage of so-called STEM skilled workers will be the topic of a conference planned Tuesday at Colby College in Waterville.

The 2012 Maine STEM Summit will bring together educators, business leaders and policymakers to discuss the problem, and what is being done to address it.

The past two conferences, held in 2008 and 2010, really focused on raising awareness about the problem, said Anita Bernhardt, science and technology specialist with Maine’s Department of Education.

“In a lot of ways, it marks a kind of turning of a corner for us as a state,” said Bernhardt. “We’re really moving to this engagement stage, and getting into the weeds about what it means to do STEM effectively.”

Addressing this work force shortage of high-tech workers is important to growing the Maine economy. There has been a lot of news over the past year of a shortage of skilled workers such as machinists and electricians.

That’s the case for skilled IT workers, as well, with job openings in growing, new-economy companies such as Wright Express, Unum, IDEXX Laboratories and others being filled with people from out of state by necessity. In some cases, Maine companies are opening IT centers in other states to fill their needs.

There’s a number of initiatives under way to address the problem here, with business leaders and educators collaborating on solutions. One goal is to double the number of computer science graduates from the University of Maine system over the next four years. Another is to more than double the number of internships offered in IT-related fields.

Wright Express CEO Mike Dubyak has emerged as a leading force in STEM initiatives in Maine.

“How do we improve the economic well-being? How do we keep our best and brightest in the state of Maine, not going to school and then leaving the state?” said Dubyak.

He said his company employs 121 in IT jobs in South Portland. But the company also employs 65 contractors.

“We’ve increased our work force in it by 50 percent with contractors, because we can’t find people in the state who can do these jobs,” said Dubyak.

Dubyak said in talks among his company and six other large Maine employers, it was determined that they would create a total of 500 IT jobs over the next five years. The University of Maine system graduates about 50 people each year with four-year degrees in computer science or information science, he said. That’s a shortfall of 250.

A study by Planning Decisions Inc. broadened that trend, Dubyak said. The 10-year supply of people with associate degrees in computer sciences graduating from Maine schools is 210, with 590 bachelor’s degree holders.

The demand is 1,777. That’s a shortfall of 977.

Dubyak thinks the problem is children losing interest in STEM-related jobs through high school and into college. He pointed to studies that showed 75 percent of fourth-graders in Maine and nationwide wanted to grow up to work in a STEM field — doctor, astronaut, etc.

By the eighth grade, that number drops to 50 percent nationwide. In Maine, it drops to 25 percent.

“We’re losing their hearts and minds somewhere along that life cycle,” said Dubyak.

To help keep students aware of career opportunities, companies involved in the STEM initiative plan to increase the number of IT-related internships to 500 in the next four years, up from 200.

They’re also working with the community college and UMaine system to figure out how to increase the number of IT grads coming out of the state’s schools, including allowing easy matriculation from the two-year programs to baccalaureate programs.

Jan Mokros, executive director of the Maine Math and Science Alliance, said her group has been working on educating teachers in STEM areas for decades. Now they’re working to educate teachers and guidance councilors about the STEM gap problem. Teachers don’t necessarily teach kids about careers or what they can do in certain areas. But that has to be part of the solution, she said.

There are positive things happening in the state, she said. The industry push to double the amount of IT graduates over the next four years is one of them. Another is work by the Reach Center, a project of the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance in collaboration with the Maine School of Science and Mathematics created by a $3.2 million grant. The goal of the center is to help students in grades 5-12 learn new concepts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Bernhardt, from the education department, said addressing the STEM gap encompasses all these things: work force development, K-12 teaching and learning, and collaboration among business, educators, government and nonprofits. It’s not a Maine-specific problem, she said, but the state does need to address the issues now.

“We have a great opportunity to get kids prepared. We’ve got a great energy, we’ve all got to be willing to dig down and make it happen,” said Bernhardt. “If we don’t do it now, we’re going to miss a great opportunity for kids.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/03/19/business/conference-seeks-ways-to-close-widening-high-tech-skills-gap/ printed on September 21, 2014