Donald Fry: Tech jobs are here, more are coming, but can we fill them?

By Donald C. Fry

As hard as jobs are to find in the middle of the recession that is gripping our state, there is at least one industry segment in Maryland where jobs are readily available to qualified applicants – information technology.

“There is negative unemployment in the cyber security industry,” says Bill Varner, president of ManTech Mission and Technology Solutions, who adds that his company is continually challenged to find employees to fill available jobs.

Virtually every IT executive who, along with Varner, attended a September 22 cyber security conference in Arundel Mills echoed his observation.

The primary topics of the conference, hosted by Corridor, Inc., Center Maryland, PressBox and the Greater Baltimore Committee, were the cyber security challenge facing our nation and the economic implications for Maryland as it emerges as the center for the cyber security industry. But it didn’t take executives of IT companies with operations here long to comment on the workforce challenges they face.

Their message? The demand for workers to fill jobs in Maryland’s IT industry outstrips the capacity of our state’s higher education institutions to fill them. As a result, major IT companies and other tech-driven companies must recruit nationwide for positions that are open right here, right now in our recession-racked state.

For example, ManTech, an IT firm that serves the defense, security, space, and intelligence communities, currently posts web listings for 351 open positions in Central Maryland.

Technology industry giant SAIC, whose customer base includes clients in the national security, energy, environment, and health industries, lists 562 jobs currently open in Maryland.

These are just two anecdotal examples, but they frame a significant economic development challenge Maryland currently faces: increasing our state’s ability to generate a highly-educated tech-savvy workforce sufficient to meet business needs in the 21st century.

The challenge is made broader by an aging technology workforce. It’s not just about filling new jobs created by technology industry growth in our state. It’s also about being able to fill technology openings created by an anticipated wave of retirements.

With retirements by baby-boomers, more than 900,000 job vacancies will be generated in Maryland in the next eight years — almost two-thirds of which will require post-secondary education, estimates a 2010 report by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce.

What’s more, for a state where science and technology is expected to play a prominent role in its economic growth, Maryland lags behind competing states when it comes to work force development in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), according to a 2009 state STEM task force report.

“Economists tell us that, by 2020, 60 percent of jobs in Maryland will require a two- or four-year college degree,” says Dr. William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland (USM.). “Yet at present, only 44 percent of Maryland adults have a postsecondary degree.”

The USM system, which includes 12 public universities and two higher education centers in Maryland, has taken up the challenge with a thoughtful and results-oriented strategic plan. A goal of the plan is to award 10,000 more bachelor’s degrees by 2020, including more than 1,400 degrees in STEM subjects. The plan also calls for tripling the number of K-12 teacher education graduates in STEM subjects.

One year into the plan, the system has logged significant progress, Kirwan reported in a presentation last week to GBC members. He cited results including 2,464 more bachelor’s degrees awarded; 548 more STEM degrees awarded; 4,257 more undergraduates enrolled in STEM programs, and a 45 percent increase in the number of STEM teacher education graduates.

While this is a “good running start,” in order to achieve the goal of significantly growing Maryland’s tech workforce, all elements of our state’s education pipeline must work together, Kirwan says.

The task will need to encompass a focus on strengthening K-12 student preparedness for college, fostering a better partnership between two-year colleges and four-year institutions and, among other things, dramatically change the way lower-level STEM subjects are taught at Maryland’s colleges and universities, he said.

The growing availability of technology jobs in Maryland will likely increase early student interest in STEM subjects. To convert this into a stronger STEM workforce, “we’ve got to have better-prepared students coming through the K-12 sector, absolutely,” says Kirwan. But there’s “all sorts of data” showing that the biggest drop-off in interest in majoring in STEM subjects occurs during the first two years of college, he adds.

Why? “We are teaching students in those first two years the way we did 200 years ago,” says Kirwan.

Students in introductory STEM-related courses, still often find themselves “sitting in a large lecture listening to somebody pontificate,” he says. “But the large lecture structure, which is how we teach science and mathematics, doesn’t work any more.”

Among other things, this realization has prompted efforts within USM to “totally revamp” the way beginning science and mathematics courses are taught, says Kirwan.

Passive presentations in large lecture halls will be replaced with “much more active learning models.” One model that UMBC employs for beginning chemistry and physics courses includes a room with a whole bunch of round tables, a work station in front of every seat. Faculty and grad students circulate among undergraduate students to answer questions at a moment’s notice, discuss concepts, and pique students’ interest in the subjects, Kirwan explained.

Another challenge to strengthening education in STEM subjects, says Kirwan, is the “unbelievably high” attrition rate among K-12 teachers.

Beyond strengthening the education process itself – the supply side of workforce development – the USM strategic plan also includes bolstering the demand side of the equation. It would incentivize the development of intellectual property and tech transfer initiatives to convert Maryland’s significant research strength into the formation of new companies within the state.

The USM plan’s goal is to start 325 successful companies by 2020. Thirty start-ups were created during the first year, Kirwan reported.

Maryland ranks first in the nation for research and development per capita, and in the top five for total volume of research. But Maryland ranks 28th in economic gain from the R&D, notes Kirwan.

“In Maryland we’re generating lots of great ideas. Fabulous research is being done. But guess what? The companies are being formed somewhere else,” he says. “This is a problem that we have to address.”

The USM’s 10-year strategy straightforwardly approaches two major issues that directly impact Maryland’s economy – strengthening workforce development to fuel technology industry growth, and converting our state’s unique research assets into new business that stays within our borders.

One thing is clear. For Maryland, the stakes are high. The extent to which the public and private sectors, within and without the USM structure, work together to seize these two major opportunities in our midst will shape our state’s economic future and quality of life.

 

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