Worker shortage called Md., U.S. threat

The Baltimore Sun

A shortage of workers with high-tech and other skills needed to fill defense and homeland security jobs threatens not only Maryland's economic development but also the nation's war on terrorism, according to a report released yesterday.

The Fort Meade Alliance, a group of business leaders that lobbies on behalf of the Army post in Anne Arundel County, argued that Maryland isn't doing enough to steer students to engineering, math and scientific fields, and the college graduates it is producing lack basic skills in communication, teamwork and leadership.

"Because Maryland is so critical to the provision of services and technologies related to national homeland security and defense ... there is an implicit obligation to provide the human capital necessary to protect America," according to the executive summary of the 19-page report.

Underlying this conclusion is the urgency of the base realignment and closure process, or BRAC, which is expected over the next several years to bring at least 45,000 jobs to Maryland, with the vast majority going to Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.

The bulk of the BRAC jobs moving to the state are in the fields of telecommunications, information technology, weapons building and health care.

On top of that, thousands of additional jobs not related to BRAC that are coming to the National Security Agency, Fort Detrick in Frederick and elsewhere - in fields such as biodefense, linguistics and surveillance - raise the already-high stakes for Maryland to excel in the "knowledge economy."

In light of these dynamics, the report said, the state needs to bolster its efforts to attract advanced students to math and science and imbue them with more developed leadership skills; raise the percentage of people who can fluently speak a second language; and streamline the security-clearance process so qualified workers don't wait a year or more to reach the workplace.

While the shortage of mathematicians, scientists and engineers is being felt across the country, a greater percentage of Maryland's work force is in those fields, the report said, and the increased appetite for such trained personnel is straining the state's ability to satisfy it.

According to the report, state officials estimate a 17 percent jump in engineering employment between 2004 and 2014, "but that can only occur if there is a supply to meet demand." While enrollment for bachelor's degrees in Maryland rose 24 percent between 1994 and 2004, the number of students pursuing math, engineering and biological scienes dropped.

The report emphasized boosting the number of engineers and professionals to train them, concluding that they will be called on to be leaders in homeland security efforts.

Level of education

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown said that Maryland is well-suited to meet that goal, pointing to some of the reasons the federal government chose in 2005 to relocate thousands of jobs here: It has one of the most educated work forces in the country and a host of competitive schools that serve those from kindergarten to graduate school.

"The governor and I recognize our responsibility as a state that will play a more prominent role in our nation's defense," said Brown, who is overseeing the state's preparation for BRAC. "These jobs could not be out-sourced halfway around the globe. They will come to Maryland and stay in Maryland if we do our job: provide a trained work force and provide the proper investments in infrastructure."

The report is based on findings collected at a conference in May at the National Business Park in Annapolis Junction, where representatives from the state's universities, lawmakers, defense officials and contractors spoke about how they could work together to train the future work force to serve Maryland's national defense apparatus.

Jay Baldwin, president of the Fort Meade Alliance, said that at a time when the defense industry is facing a wave of retirement from an aging work force, there are fewer people with the skills and security approvals to replace them.

Though the United States produces about 72,000 engineers a year, up nearly 10,000 from the 1980s, those numbers "aren't enough to soak up all the demand," said Bob Black, deputy executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education.

Start them young

"To get a greater supply, we have to make structural changes to our education to get more people in the K-12 science and engineer pipeline earlier," said Black, echoing remarks of panelists in May.

Brown spoke of looking at educating students at a "K-20 level," from kindergarten through graduate school, to provide them with the exposure and support to work in the defense field.

To that end, Brown said, the state is boosting funding for STEM programs (science, technology, engineer and math) in local school districts, and educators are retooling their curricula for those likely to forgo college for technical work.

"Maryland does a tremendous job already in educating its work force," Baldwin said. "How to improve the process to make it better benefits everyone."

On top of the challenge of educating tomorrow's work force, the report said, higher housing prices will likely slow migration of workers. Taken together with an unemployment rate a full point below the national average, the BRAC demands and a tightening of federal dollars, "it becomes clear that Maryland's homeland security and defense sectors face monumental challenges in the years ahead," it says.

Brown, though, said the state knows a thing or two about government-related growth, noting a BRAC expansion of 5,000 personnel in the mid-1990s at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

In addition, 50 federal agencies in Maryland employ about a half-million people, and federal spending on research and development hovers around $12 billion annually, an amount second only to Virginia.

"Maryland is not a stranger to growth and development of federal activities," he said.

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