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Column: Addressing STEM skills gap is critical to growth

It shouldn't take much discussion to convince today's students they should take a second look at pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math. In a difficult economy with high unemployment, unemployment in STEM fields stands at 3.2 percent, less than half the national rate of 7.5 and well below Minnesota's rate of 5.4.

Author and educator Steve Blank in his commencement speech at the University of Minnesota's College of Science and Engineering earlier this month made an even stronger case to the graduates: "Engineers," he said, "used to be the people who made other people's ideas work. Today, they change the world. We live in a time where scientists and engineers are synonymous with continuous innovation."

They are also part of one of the fastest growing job fields in America. By 2018, the nation will have at least 8.6 million jobs in STEM and computer science fields, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The difficulty, and the challenge for the U.S., is that our nation's colleges and universities aren't graduating enough students in STEM fields.

Because of the shortage of workers trained in STEM fields, the U.S. may fall as many as 3 million workers short of meeting the number of high skilled available jobs in 2018, according to the National Math + Science Initiative.

The organization notes that STEM jobs are expected to grow by 17 percent in the decade between 2008 and 2018. That compares with a much lower 9.8 percent non-STEM job growth rate. Jobs in computer science are expected to grow at an even faster rate - 45 percent - over the same timeframe.

Taken on its own, this is encouraging news for our economy - the fields most likely to lead American innovation are expected to experience significant growth in the near future. But that growth will not occur unless we produce a sufficient number of graduates trained in high skills fields. This STEM skills gap needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar defined the crisis for Minnesota during a recent forum on STEM education in Washington. "We're turning away business at some of our businesses in Minnesota, because we don't have the people for the jobs, and we really have to transform if we're going to have to compete in this international economy."

Klobuchar recently released a report on manufacturing job growth and the shrinking representation of women in the field. She has also focused on concrete steps to address the STEM worker shortage by introducing legislation to double the STEM schools in America. She is joined in this effort by Senators Orin Hatch, R-Utah, and Chris Coons, D-Delaware.

Together, they successfully offered an amendment to immigration reform legislation that creates a national STEM education fund.

If included in the final immigration legislation, this amendment will allow Minnesota and other states to augment their STEM education programs. The fund would be paid for by an additional fee on employers who need green cards for employees to help fill currently vacant positions.

Klobuchar and her colleagues rightly note that more must be done to interest students in these fields and to do so earlier in their educations. A robust national fund dedicated to STEM education is a good place to start to ensure that women and underrepresented groups are exposed to opportunities to study in these fields.

Who knows? One day in the not-too-distant future, perhaps one of the students we engage in science or technology today could be addressing the graduates of the College of Science and Engineering.

Penny represented Minnesota's 1st Congressional District for 10 years and is the president of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.