Donald Fry: The ultimate measure of a workforce brainpower

By Donald C. Fry

American humorist and author Arnold H. Glasow once wrote “In life, as in football, you won’t go far unless you know where the goal posts are.”

When it comes to workforce development in Maryland, we have a pretty clear view of the goalposts, thanks to a 2010 report by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce.

Seven years from now, the number of jobs in Maryland will have swelled from 2.8 million in 2008 to 3.1 million in 2018. Two thirds of the 300,000 additional jobs that will be available in 2018 will require some type of college education. Maryland will rank 3rd in the nation for jobs requiring advanced degrees and 11th for jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree or better, according to the Georgetown report.

If those numbers don’t faze you, consider this. When anticipated retirements by baby-boomers are factored in, more than 900,000 job vacancies will be generated in Maryland between 2008 and 2018 – almost two-thirds of which will require postsecondary education.

There’s another wrinkle to Maryland’s workforce challenge. For a state where science and technology will play prominent roles in its economic future, Maryland lags behind competing states when it comes to work force development in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), reported a 2009 Governor’s task force on STEM-related issues.

These are compelling challenges for Maryland’s higher education institutions, as well as for students, administrators and teachers in Maryland’s K-12 schools.

The University System of Maryland (USM) Board of Regents, in its new strategic plan for 2020 adopted last December, does not shy away from articulating the magnitude of our state’s challenges in matching our educational resources to the intensely knowledge-based needs of our private sector.

Despite the widely acknowledged strength of Maryland’s K-12 and higher education systems, Maryland struggles, more than most of our competing states with issues related to the success of its “academic pipeline,” the progression of students moving into high school and then directly on to college and a baccalaureate degree, the plan’s introduction states.

Also, our state “depends more than most of its competitors on its ability to attract highly-educated workers from other states to satisfy its technical and professional workforce needs,” USM regents warn. They also acknowledge the state’s deficiencies in STEM education, noting that Maryland currently produces less than a third of STEM teachers and less than two-thirds of the amount of STEM graduates that will be needed by our state’s private sector by 2020.

The USM strategic plan sets forth a number of tactical approaches to meeting private-sector demands for a workforce that is more educated in all disciplines and particularly rich in science, technology, engineering and math.

Among other things, the USM plan’s goals for 2020 include measures to help increase Maryland’s percentage of adult population with college degrees from 44 percent to 55 percent, to increase the number of graduates with degrees in STEM-related subjects by 40 percent, and to expand the system’s orientation toward economic development.

Strategies to support these goals include strengthening outreach to new or underserved populations in Maryland, working to develop aid programs for these populations, and expanding the availability and use of online learning.

The plan also includes strategies to work with Maryland community colleges to ensure a smooth transfer of students to, and within, USM schools; to bolster resources to USM’s historically black institutions; and to work with the state’s school systems to strengthen the academic preparation of K-12 students entering USM.

STEM-related strategies include establishing premium funding for critical STEM programs, developing strong partnerships between STEM departments in universities and local secondary schools, and strengthening programs designed to alleviate key workforce shortages in health care and cyber security.

The USM strategic plan also includes advocating for state-supported scholarships, tuition discounts, waivers and loan forgiveness programs for targeted STEM majors and instilling a “culture of innovation and entrepreneurship” throughout the system.

All of these strategies, and many more contained in the thoughtful USM plan for 2020, definitely get Maryland’s largest education institution pointing in the direction of our state’s workforce goal posts. But they will require aggressive follow-through and a continuing strong state funding commitment to workforce development, which is one of eight core pillars of a competitive business environment identified by a consensus of Maryland’s business leaders and economic developers in the Greater Baltimore Committee’s recent report, “Gaining a Competitive Edge: Keys to Economic Growth and Job Creation in Maryland.”

As a state and as a nation, we must face a central compelling certainty: our economic future depends on brainpower. It sounds simplistic, but it’s a clear truth that others around the world are grasping … and that our own 21st century employers are demanding.

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