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posted: 5/9/2014 5:01 AM

Quality STEM education closes skills gap

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  • Ann Reed

    Ann Reed

By Ann Reed
Guest Columnist

Gov. Pat Quinn recently awarded the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy $3.6 million to upgrade its labs as part of a broader campaign to improve the state's science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education system.

Quinn is smart to support initiatives that will, as he explained, "ensure Illinois students compete and succeed on the world stage." Right now, America's growing deficit of qualified scientists and engineers threatens to undermine our global competitiveness and economic growth.

But while the governor's commitment is laudable, these efforts won't amount to much if federal policies hamper vital private investments.

The biopharmaceutical industry and other high-tech sectors are committed to building a robust STEM workforce. To solidify long-term economic prosperity, our leaders must encourage these contributions.

The United States faces an undeniably frightening skills gap. One survey found that roughly 600,000 manufacturing jobs that require STEM skills remain unfilled. Another found that more than three-quarters of Fortune 1000 talent recruiters report a shortage of scientific talent.

Worse, the gap is growing. A presidential advisory council found that the United States will need one million new STEM graduates over the next decade to meet expected demand. But less than a third of our students are graduating with a degree in science or engineering -- a pitiful 20th place globally. By comparison, more than 50 percent of students in China graduate with such a degree.

Our deteriorating STEM workforce is particularly troubling for the pharmaceutical industry, whose workforce is 30 percent science and research jobs -- a figure five times the national average.

That's not surprising. The sector is primarily focused on conducting scientific inquiry into the nature of diseases, and researching, developing and testing the most cutting-edge treatments in the world.

Right now, our biosciences are leading an explosion in breakthrough therapies. There are more than 5,000 drugs in various stages of development. In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration approved a record 43 new medicines, many targeting once-untreatable diseases.

Illinois is at the heart of this innovative surge. Our local biopharmaceutical companies have conducted more than 4,300 clinical trials through the state's medical school, research centers and hospitals. More than half of these trials targeted deadly diseases like asthma, cancer, diabetes, mental illness and heart disease.

The growing skills gap could stop this amazing progress in its tracks.

Accordingly, America's biopharmaceutical sector is dedicated to improving STEM education at all levels, especially in middle and high school. Over the past five years, national bioscience companies and industry foundations have invested more than $100 million in STEM education efforts, awarding nearly 600 grants and providing up to 4,500 volunteers.

My organization, the iBIO Institute, is one of these efforts. Through our TalentSparks program, we provide teachers with hands-on biotechnology lab activities, tours of research and development facilities, and authentic learning experiences. Through our Stellar Girls program, we offer exciting, hands-on after-school STEM opportunities for girls in grades four through eight.

A study by Battelle found that efforts like these have helped more than 17,500 teachers across the country and more than 1.6 million students. These young people will fill critical high-wage jobs that not only drive scientific progress, but also economic growth -- STEM-based industries support additional jobs across the economy.

Unfortunately, lawmakers in Washington are considering a number of policies that are in direct conflict with such programs and could force high-tech industries to scale back STEM improvement programs.

We can't afford such policies. Our leaders must instead look to initiatives like Gov. Quinn's for inspiration in their efforts to close the STEM skills gap. Doing so will ensure America's long-term prosperity.

• Ann Reed is the vice president of the EDUCATE Center at the iBIO Institute in Chicago.

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