State not producing enough graduates in high-tech fields



Posted on June 9, 2014 at 6:31 PM

Updated Monday, Jun 9 at 6:31 PM

SEATTLE - The legislature has kicked another $25 million into the Opportunity Scholarship because we're not graduating enough people to meet our own demand.

The Washington State Opportunity Scholarship can provide up to $22,500 to students enrolled in four-year programs at 68 colleges within the state's borders.  Nearly 800 students for the 2014/2015 academic year have been informed of their award, after the legislature approved another $25 million in what is a joint public private partnership with some $50 million pledged by both Boeing and Microsoft.  There's only one catch:That students has to be in a so called STEM degree program.  STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.  According to the WSOS program that includes some 367 approved STEM and health care programs, at both public and private colleges.

But the push is on for even more money, to raise some $200 million over the next several years as more businesses are expected to step up to contribute more along with state matching funds. 

Despite a tough legislative session, the legislature already came up with  more money.  Why?

"Washington is a net importer of high tech jobs," said Republican state Senator Andy Hill, who chairs the senate's ways and means committee.  "We can't turn out enough graduates to fill the demand." 

Hill himself was a so called "import" at Microsoft 24 years ago, he said, having been recruited out of Harvard.  But with an expanding tech, aerospace, and bio-medical sectors,  the concern is that companies will not only continue to look elsewhere for talent, they could start leaving Washington in search of it.

"We definitely worry this is going to get worse, and as long as these companies have to spend additional money to attract students from out of state." said Theresa Britschgi, Director of STEM Support Services for the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship.

The logic for trying to encourage more STEM graduates, is that those jobs pay more, and are more likely to  leverage the creation of other jobs in the economy.

"Washington State is among the top in the nation for state funded financial aid." already, said Democrat Speaker of the Washington House Frank Chopp. "But we just felt that it was important to challenge the private sector to also contribute money as well." 

The comments come as the Opportunity Scholarship's Board of Directors met at the University of Washington, and led by Microsoft Vice President and General Counsel Brad Smith.

According to a study published by the Boston Consulting Group last year for the Washington Roundtable, one of the state's leading business organizations, some 25,000 STEM related jobs go unfilled for 90 days or longer at Washington based companies.  They want to see that number drop dramatically.

The Scholarship provides $2,500 a year for the freshman and sophomore years, then goes to $5,000 in the junior year and now $7,500 in the senior year once a STEM related major is declared.   Another $5,000 is available if a 5th year is needed.  One goal is to bring more students into the program at more colleges and universities so they can focus more on their studies and rely less on part-time jobs and focus more on their education.  The program is aimed at students coming from low and middle income families.