Washington state must keep up with technology’s pace

Our lives are increasingly driven by technology — at home, at work and at play. Technology’s influence is visible in every industry and every community across the state, and now we have the data to show it.

A new report from the Technology Alliance found that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs represent as much as 8 percent to 20 percent of the workforce in every region of the state and tech-driven innovation is found in all industries, from the vineyards in south central Washington to the utilities in north Puget Sound.

Washington State University is working to find ways to use less water when growing grapes. As WSU researchers experiment with a new watering method, they need constant access to data on the vines’ and grapes’ growth. Drones now deliver that data — measuring plant growth and collecting valuable information. The technology demands on today’s farmers mean they must not only be soil scientists, they must be data analysts and drone operators.

On the west side of the state, Snohomish PUD in Everett recently installed an advanced vanadium flow battery made by UniEnergy Technologies (UniEnergy) out of Mukilteo. The battery is the world’s largest containerized vanadium flow battery storage system, and uses a ‘redox flow’ battery technology patented by south-central Washington’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The batteries are containerized, nonflammable, reusable and use 100 percent of the energy stored in them - and they last over 20 years. It’s another example of homegrown technology that brings both high-tech jobs and incredible environmental impact.

Technology is driving innovation and causing shifts to the workforce. The state estimates that by 2020 there will be 160,000 annual openings for STEM jobs. That is great news because STEM jobs are good paying jobs that have a bigger economic impact than most non-STEM jobs. The bad news is that Washington’s institutions of higher education cannot keep up with this demand. Our analysis shows that at the current graduation rate for STEM degrees and certificates, all in-state STEM graduates (2005-2025) would meet only 27 percent of the total demand for STEM job openings (2015-2025).

Washington state is looking at a present and future workforce where many students are not prepared to fill jobs in their own state and employers lack the talent to help grow and innovate new technologies.

The pace of STEM job growth will not wait for our education system to catch up. We must think and act creatively to both support continued economic growth across the state and ensure that we have the home-grown talent to fill the diverse job openings. We can start by doing three things:

  • Increase informal and formal STEM learning opportunities for K-12 students. This includes expanding access to computer science (currently only 10 percent of Washington’s high schools offer AP Computer Science) and higher level math classes, at the same time that we ensure younger students have access to STEM enrichment programs both in and outside of school.
  • Expand capacity for STEM majors in four-year institutions and create additional degree options at two-year institutions to better support local community demands.
  • Upskill and retrain workers through creative public, private and non-profit training programs that help shift the skills of the current workforce to better meet the demands of the future jobs (programs like Apprenti, Ada Developers Academy, Amazon’s Career Choice and Goodwill).

The numbers are daunting, but the potential is equally dizzying. Washington can show the nation how to both embrace the power of technology and ensure that its citizens have access to the opportunities created. We need to be nimble and creative, we need to work together, and we need to start today.

Carol Rava is the CEO of the Technology Alliance, a statewide, non-profit organization of leaders from Washington’s technology-based businesses and research institutions united by a vision of a vibrant innovation economy that benefits all of Washington’s citizens.