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Focus on the Workforce: Good Careers Need STEM


By Mel Schiavelli
Harrisburg University of Science and Technology


Realizing the value of technology-based manufacturing jobs, the city of Harrisburg started its own University of Science and Technology.

Americans clearly still believe that manufacturing remains the backbone of the economy, according to a June 2009 study by the Manufacturing Institute (Washington, DC). Most respondents in the survey agreed that America's manufacturing industries have a significant impact on their standard of living (81%) and on national security (68%). When asked what industry they would most want to have creating 1000 jobs in their community, respondents listed manufacturing as their top choice, followed by technology, energy, healthcare, retailing, communications, and financial institutions.

While Americans view manufacturing as the most important industry for a strong national economy, the index shows that they are not pursuing careers in manufacturing. Only 17% named manufacturing as among their top two industry choices to start a career, and only 30% of parents said they would encourage their children to pursue jobs in manufacturing.

People believe that today's manufacturing jobs are still the same repetitive jobs that dominated the economy during the 1950s and 1960s. The reality is that those types of manufacturing jobs are disappearing, but the decades-long decline in the share of workers employed in manufacturing is expected to moderate, and industries within manufacturing—such as aerospace and pharmaceuticals—are projected to create many jobs. Manufacturing has evolved into technology-rich fields where employers demand workers who possess high-tech skills and core competencies in areas such as communication, teamwork, problem solving, and critical thinking.

High-demand careers of the future certainly will require strong math, communications, and critical-thinking abilities. More than 80% of the jobs in high-growth industries in the next ten years are going to require a college education, and 50% will require a degree in a science and technology field. The US must overhaul the way we educate our talent, or tomorrow's manufacturing workforce will face the same problems as today's. We live in a global economy, and it's one where traditional nonscience jobs will require a more-robust understanding of basic science and technology to thrive. For example, as a 2009 study done by the McKinsey Global Institute notes, a purchasing manager in any US manufacturing multinational might be tasked with buying the best value inputs from anywhere in the world to supply factories in Asia. To do the job well, he/she would need advanced skills in a host of information technologies, the ability to coordinate the activities of colleagues and business partners in a global network, and very likely have a formal education in foreign languages.

Central Pennsylvania recognized the importance of these skills to its future economic growth in the 1990s, when technology jobs went unfilled because the region lacked the educated workforce capable of thriving in a knowledge-based economy. That led to the 2001 founding of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, the first science and technology-focused comprehensive university established in the Commonwealth in nearly 100 years.

Harrisburg was an industrial city whose manufacturing sector was on the decline. High-skill, high-wage jobs were no longer being created as they once were, and the area lacked an educated workforce capable of thriving in the region's growing knowledge-based economy. Additionally, despite the existence of 20 other colleges within close proximity, the region was suffering from a technical brain drain.

Community leaders recognized that a new direction for the region was needed. Leveraging Harrisburg's strength as a state capital, these leaders decided to build a more stable employment base and revive the city's economy by creating its own institution of higher education, dedicated to addressing the technological and scientific requirements of a 21st century workforce.

This group of business, government, and academic leaders evaluated the specific needs of this new economy, from education and industry to taxes and transportation. What became evident was the importance of linking education to economic development.

It was clear to the group that higher education and new skill sets were needed for job growth, as the age of emerging technology and new materials brought more sophisticated products and processes to industry, the business office, and the retail environment. Manufacturing was no longer a low-skill, repetitive process, but involved a high level of technical knowledge coupled with strong decision-making and team-building skills. Collars were no longer blue or white, and workers would have to embrace life-long learning to continue building new skills and to thrive in the workplace.

With too few technically educated workers available, the region's economic growth was depending too heavily on sectors with lower-paying jobs and dimmer long-term prospects. We were in danger of becoming what one business leader described as a "warehouse economy."

Education would need to emphasize science and technology, from secondary classrooms to the college and university lecture hall. But in a region of two million people, of which Harrisburg was the largest city as well as the state capital, there were no four-year institutions that focused primarily on the sciences and technology.

The region had a strong community college presence, and several highly regarded liberal arts institutions, but none focused on the core subjects that a growing and changing economy required: STEM—science, technology, engineering and math.

Moreover, the universities in the region evidenced little interest in offering programs that concentrated on STEM subjects exclusively, which left no alternative other than to create an entirely new university from scratch.

Enter Harrisburg University of Science and Technology (HU), a private urban educational institution that provides competencies that encourage the successful navigation of STEM careers by all students. The University represents STEM-based economic development, and it has become a blueprint for chambers of commerce around the nation.

It's central to Harrisburg University's mission to link education to business needs in the region. Long before we accepted a single application, senior management met with more than 100 CEOs from companies throughout the Commonwealth, to determine their workforce needs. The university designed its curriculum with the answers of these leaders in mind. Regional industry also helped develop the university's course curriculum, and also provided corporate faculty and program advisory members. In addition, the school links every student with a business mentor upon enrollment, and its multiyear internships are mandatory.

The University's campus is located near many of the businesses where HU students serve internships. This reciprocal relationship allows students to gain real-work experience in the business technology sector, and enables companies to gain prequalified employees whom they can educate and train for the specific needs of their industry.

Harrisburg University has graduated 33 students since 2005, and a majority of those graduates were hired by the companies they worked for through the school's unique internship program. More importantly, these former interns are now working in their chosen field, where they have a developed a skill set that sets them apart from other entry-level employees in the job market.

HU's future graduates will enter the marketplace equipped with STEM skills that enable them to succeed immediately. And as the number of alumni grow, so too will the talent base in the Harrisburg region. This will, in turn, attract new companies to the region, and begin the cycle that leads to the vitality and creativity that breeds innovation. By becoming the hub of STEM education in the Central Pennsylvania region, HU will attract new students into the STEM disciplines, and produce alumni and future residents with the skills to create an entrepreneurial culture right here in the capital region.

As such, the university is in a unique position to help the central Pennsylvania region increase the percentage of the population that holds a college degree, so that the region realizes an economic benefit. For example, with only 25.6% of the population of neighboring Cumberland and Dauphin counties holding a college degree, a 1% increase in education attainment level means a $763 increase in per capita income. The annual impact to the region's economy would exceed $370 million in direct wages.

The engine of growth that fuels our national competiveness is linked to our ability to develop and educate the most competent and adaptable workforces throughout the nation, and in regions like south-central Pennsylvania.

If we expect future college graduates to become workers for high-growth industries and to lead change across a series of emerging-technology fields, then the educational model embodied by Harrisburg University, a model aligned with technology based economic development and innovation, should emerge as viable and necessary as well.


This article was first published in the February 2010 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 2/1/2010

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