Now, how to pay for STEM

For policy wonks, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is a mod buzzword. STEM transcends political party, a Republican and Democratic anthem. More STEM and health-care graduates will invigorate Western Washington’s economy, and fill a yawning skills gap. And so there’s agreement.

The “yes-and” question is whether Olympia lawmakers will pony up to boost higher-ed’s capacity and prepare K-12 students for a brave new science and math curriculum.

Northwesterners have heard the rallying cry before, at least on the federal level. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 was in response to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. It boosted federal funding for engineering as well foreign language and area-studies programs. While the Soviets weren’t ahead of the United States (shhh), Sputnik galvanized lawmakers to give the United States a competitive advantage, cementing American research universities as the best in the world.

STEM is a different animal, but the urgency is equally intense. Last week, the Washington Roundtable (a group of business heavy hitters) and the Boston Consulting Group issued a report, “Great Jobs within Our Reach” that adds statistical heft to the message. The report underscores the dearth of in-state workers sufficiently skilled to fill open jobs. Northwesterners grow cranky over foreign engineers and techies who flock to Microsoft and Boeing, but they’re filling a demand that can’t be met by local grads. The stats are sobering, just the potential windfall provides hope.

If Washington fills the skills gap, there could be 110,000 new, cross-sector jobs by 2017, the report states. Statewide, there are 25,000 positions that have gone unfilled for 3 months or more because of the lack of qualified applicants. Eighty percent of the jobs are in STEM, health care or computer science. The gap will swell by 5,000 jobs per year, hitting 50,000 four years from now. Filling these slots will translate into $720 million in annual state-tax revenues and $80 million in local taxes. For every job created, $5,000 in state and local revenue will be generated.

“The research clearly shows that jobs have already left Washington because employers couldn’t find qualified candidates here,” The Boston group’s Joel Janda said. “We can only assume that more will leave if the job skills gap isn’t addressed.” The recommendations are straightforward and include bolstering capacity for engineering, health care and engineering degrees and kindling interest in STEM among K-12 students.

The only question mark — and it’s a biggie — is how Washington pays for it. Differential tuition (math majors shell out more than English majors) is one approach. For K-12, it means new revenues. Closing outdated tax loopholes and weighing a capital gains tax are the best strategy for a state repelled by income-tax chatter. If Republicans and Democrats agree on the ends, they should be able to find consensus on the means.

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