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Collaborate on workforce development

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ASSET STEM, the Pittsburgh-based education nonprofit is establishing a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Innovation Center in the Norwin School District in Westmoreland County. The purpose is to develop a model for business-education collaboration.

This, says the nonprofit, is the future of education.

For education, the future is always now, always immediate, yet American academia and businesses have been slow to recognize and accept that they must collaborate to create robust workforce development programs, if the workforce is to have the STEM skills necessary for our economically competitive, high-tech 21st century.

From economic analysts to military planners, the concern is the same: American schools and job-training programs are not producing nearly enough qualified graduates to fill jobs in science, technology, engineering and math, the jobs most in demand.

From one workforce competitiveness study to the next, statistics broadcast a clear and loud signal: the current approach to preparing high school and college students for the workforce is woefully inadequate in many areas and failing in most others.

The Council of Competitiveness reports that the United States ranks 17th among developed nations in the proportion of college graduates earning a science or engineering degree, a drop from third place in the 1980s. More troubling, the country ranks 26th in the number of students receiving undergraduate degrees in mathematics.

It's not that academia and business are unaware of this need, but like old battleships failing to heed new navigational signals, they are slow to alter their course in a fast-changing world.

For America to stay competitive in the 21st century, businesses will have to play a greater role in our education system, working with secondary schools and colleges to modernize teaching, curriculum development and training.

Some organizations, such as ASSET STEM and Team PA, are working to make that happen with programs to encourage K-12 students to engage science, technology and math during out-of-school time. National studies show the more students engage in these subjects outside of school, the more likely they are to choose a STEM field.

Technology is transforming the home, the workplace and the classroom — every aspect of our lives. While secondary and higher education have for the most part embraced these changes — albeit slowly at times — they haven't kept up with the pace of change.

Nearly half the jobs lost during the recession have been recovered, but nearly all required some level of post-secondary education, according to Georgetown University's Center on Education and Workforce.

Most sobering were the study's statistics: The unemployment rate for college graduates stands at 7 percent, but it's more than three times that — 24 percent — for those with a high school diploma or less.

The Brookings Institution made the same finding in a report that found metropolitan areas with poorer performing schools and fewer college graduates had significantly higher unemployment rates.

According to the study, for every unemployed college graduate in the Carlisle/Harrisburg region, 14 job openings are available to them. For every high school graduate or less, only 4.3 jobs are available.

High school students not considering college or post-secondary training should think twice about their decisions regarding education. Three decades ago, according to one expert, fewer than 30 percent of jobs in America required an education beyond high school. Now, most jobs require a postsecondary degree or credential.

This is why the future of education is always now. Having a college degree in one of the STEM fields is critical to the success of the student, the employer and the national economy.

The statistics are clear: Gainful employment in the 21st century requires more than just a high school degree while a world-competitive economy requires integrated workforce development in which colleges and universities collaborate with businesses.

Robert J. Dolan, ASA, is chairman of the board at Conrad Siegel Actuaries and chairman of the Board of Trustees at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

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