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Demand for STEM workers outpaces supply [Commentary]

The Maryland legislature last week passed a 2015 budget, and it includes $12 million to help create jobs in Maryland's innovative biotech and life science sector. That's a smart use of resources. For lawmakers looking to put residents back to work, our state's high-tech sectors have been bright spots — especially our vanguard biotech industry, which accounts for more than 11 percent of the Maryland economy.

In Baltimore, Emergent Technologies is now staffing 200 new workers; this year, Montgomery County's Precision for Medicine will add 170 to the rolls; and in 2011, Frederick-based Life Technologies hired 100 people. These gains have helped make Maryland one of only 17 states to recover all jobs lost during recent difficult economic times. Jobs like these are the key to Maryland's and America's futures. STEM jobs — those in science, technology, engineering, and math — pay well now, allow us to keep pace with technological changes, and provide long-term growth in an increasingly globalized economy.

Unfortunately, not enough students are preparing to fill these positions. And while it is generally popular to voice support for STEM education, short-sighted actions could undermine the industries creating these high-skilled jobs. State and national leaders must promote policies and institutions that foster STEM talent. If they don't, we'll miss out on a major driver of economic growth.

Technology-based jobs are already immensely important. Nationwide, STEM fields directly employed more than 7 million Americans in 2012. And job openings in science and tech-related fields are projected to grow by nearly 20 percent by 2018 — nearly double the rate of growth in non-STEM occupations. This red-hot demand ensures STEM workers will continue to enjoy greater job stability and higher wages.

The rise of advanced tech careers plays to Maryland's strengths. Our state already sits in a hub of high-paying technical jobs. Local industry can't help but thrive on our rich academic and government resources. These opportunities have also built a valuable pool of human capital for companies to draw upon.

Maryland is fortunate to have this abundance of funding and talent. But when it comes to future workforce development in STEM fields, the United States as a whole is lagging behind our competitors — and even Maryland isn't performing as well as it needs to perform. According to a report by Gov. Martin O'Malley's STEM Task Force, Maryland schools produce just 4,000 STEM graduates for 6,000 annual STEM job openings.

Fortunately, our leaders recognize the seriousness of this challenge. The newly agreed upon budget includes Governor O'Malley's record funding for education, with a strong emphasis on building STEM skills. On the national level, President Barack Obama has committed billions of dollars to improving STEM education.

Opportunities exist, and are currently being explored and championed right here in Maryland, to have education play a greater role in filling these talent pipelines through a community-wide movement, with organizations like Maryland Business Roundtable For Education, We Work for Health and Junior Achievement taking aim at this effort and working together to close the gap.

What's more, private industries that depend on high-skilled workers recognize the importance of developing a robust STEM workforce. Over the past five years, biotech companies have invested over $100 million and volunteered almost 27,000 hours toward initiatives to promote STEM education. Their programs reach 500,000 Maryland students and 8,000 teachers each year.

Investments like this are happening all over Maryland, but we must take care not to undo all these efforts at the wide end of the workforce training funnel with policies that stifle innovation at the tight end of the funnel, because that's where hiring happens — or does not.

Maryland's experience shows that smart policy can help the private sector boost the economy long-term. Tax incentives for investments in the life sciences, for example, helped the state rise to No. 6 in STEM job growth, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This budget continues on that path.

It's clear that technical jobs hold great potential for Maryland's economy, but only if we commit to building a qualified workforce and to encouraging — rather than punishing — innovation.

Jennifer Bodensiek, President of Owings-Mills based Junior Achievement of Central Maryland. Her email is

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