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Lack of STEM is root of growing problem

According to leaders in technology and manufacturing, there is a quiet crisis building in the American workforce that has nothing to do with jobs moving overseas or trade agreements. It is an internal crisis born out of the societal anomaly we call “The Baby Boom.”

Some experts predict a shortage of 4 million to 8 million high-skilled workers in this decade. Looking out to 2030, this shortfall may grow as high as 35 million. These deficiencies are due to two primary factors: the “aging out” of the baby boom workforce and the lack of younger workers pursuing degrees and training in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

Local employers such as HAAS Automation, the Navy, government contractors and others have expressed these same concerns at various public briefings. Since it takes multiple years to gain the necessary training and experience, these employers have determined there are simply not enough workers in the pipeline to meet their needs.

For the defense industry, this problem is compounded by the sensitive and secure nature of government work. National defense jobs cannot be outsourced. Most must be filled by U.S. citizens.

There are several trends that exacerbate this crisis. The first is a general downward trend in post-secondary enrollment. The pipeline of adequately trained potential employees is being reduced. And although the number of female enrollments and post-secondary completions is rising, their male counterparts’ comparable rates of enrollment and completion are declining.

The other disturbing trend is that many are not choosing one of the STEM disciplines as their major field of study. A National Center for Education Statistics report from 2014 indicates only 28 percent of bachelor of arts students and 20 percent of associate of arts students pursue STEM-related majors. And among them, 48 percent of B.A. candidates and 69 percent of A.A. candidates transfer out of STEM majors to non-STEMs major before graduation. In addition, there is a general lack of students pursuing skilled trades such as machining.

So is anything being done locally to address these needs? Yes, California, by providing specific funding to the Department of Education, has tackled the problem head-on.

Local agencies like the Ventura County Office of Education have received over $30 million in supplementary funding over the past three years to address this issue. In making these funds available, the state has emphasized a key concept to attract students into these fields, and that involves linking classroom learning to a real-world application of that learning.

Programs such as VC Innovates and the Oxnard Union High School District’s Alliance for Linked Learning are attempting to do just that. They are engaging students in a continuum of work-based learning experiences. These can include activities such as in-class guest speakers from industry, the judging of student projects by industry professionals, serving on an advisory board, mentoring, job site visits, job shadowing and internships. To accomplish this, educational agencies are developing relationships with employers and enticing them into volunteering for one of these activities.

The Oxnard Chamber of Commerce has been following these efforts for a number of years and this year acquired a small grant to further the work-based learning efforts. With our Direct Path to Success grant, the chamber has also developed some original efforts, such as the Intern Bootcamp, which trained several hundred high school juniors and seniors on issues most important for new hires in the workplace, such as motivation, work ethics and communication.

We supported a Girls in STEM Day, in which over 150 eighth-grade girls engaged in STEM-related activities led by female engineers and heard the professionals’ own stories on how

they were attracted to their careers. The chamber also supported the Office of Education's Entrée to Employment dinner for students interested in the hospitality industry. This event allowed students taking classes in this vocational area to meet and question local professionals.

If you want to provide work-based learning experiences in STEM-related or even non-STEM-related fields, I encourage you to reach out to any of these organizations. Countywide systems are now being developed to leverage resources and provide a single point of contact to engage with and inspire local students.

The P-20 Council, Workforce Development Board, Office of Education, VC STEM regional network and your local chambers of commerce are all actively engaged in increasing the number of county students selecting a STEM-related career that allows them to earn an income sufficient to remain in our county and make valuable contributions to our communities.

Nancy Lindholm is president and CEO of the Oxnard Chamber of Commerce. This column originally appeared in the Ventura County Star.

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