Is STEM taking root? Despite efforts to meet the need for skilled trades workers, shortages remain

Michigan has gotten the hint: Employers need STEM-trained workers.

Efforts have been made to plug the gap by lots of stakeholders — high schools, community colleges, employer groups, nonprofits, workforce agencies, foundations and businesses. Yet the need for specific kinds of workers still exists.

“The issue has been out there long enough for people to have an understanding of it,” said Gary Farina, executive director of the Michigan STEM Partnership in Lansing. “It’s on their radar, and they’re out there seeing what they can do.”

And there is a lot to do, judging by recent studies.

Much of the growing need is for middle-skill workers — those with more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree, such as largely technical jobs in manufacturing and health care, said a J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. report published in April. It’s one of the most recent of many studies showing the need to educate more students in science, technology, engineering and math.

The Chase report focused on the six-county metropolitan statistical area of Lapeer, Livingston, Macomb, Oakland, St. Clair and Wayne counties.

Middle-skill occupations represent 17 percent of all jobs in Southeast Michigan, and the number will continue to grow as baby boomers retire and more than 5,700 of these types of jobs are expected to open every year through 2018, the report said. Average hourly wages for these jobs are $23.37 an hour, compared with the living wage of $17.08.

A report by Georgetown University says Michigan will have an estimated 228,000 STEM-related jobs by 2018, with nearly 8.7 million in the U.S. as a whole, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

State’s response

The forecasts and cries from businesses haven’t been lost on Lansing.

Gov. Rick Snyder, who often speaks about the need for more STEM education, has reorganized state workforce and economic development offices under the new Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development, or TED. In February, Snyder committed $50 million in new funding for community colleges to buy equipment to build up their skilled trades programs.

To be awarded the Community College Skilled Trades Equipment Program grants, schools had to demonstrate significant demand from employers for the programs for which they sought funding, said Stephanie Comai, director of the new Talent Investment Agency within TED.

Among the schools receiving the state grants were Henry Ford College, $4.5 million; Macomb Community College, $2.8 million; Oakland Community College, $4.5 million; and Washtenaw Community College, $4.3 million.

Last year, Snyder opened the Michigan Office for New Americans to attract workers from other countries to fill STEM jobs. The agency joined the Global Talent Retention Initiative of Michigan, which seeks to do the same thing.

The governor also has proposed increasing funding of the Skilled Trades Training Fund to $20 million from $10 million. The fund, which helps cover training costs for employers struggling to find skilled workers, was used to train 10,000 people last year, Comai said. Employers must match the amount the state delivers.

Lawmakers also have gotten into the game with legislation that would allow STEM endorsements to be put on high school diplomas for students who earn certain credits.

Colleges take STEM steps

Along with some Michigan community colleges using state STEM equipment grants to improve programs, Macomb Community College received a $24.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor in 2013 to lead a coalition of eight Michigan community colleges called the Michigan Coalition for Advanced Manufacturing, or M-CAM. The program trains displaced and underemployed workers according to employers’ needs in CNC machining, welding, mechatronics and production operation.

Training began six months ago and ranges from four to 15 weeks for individual programs. Students train 40 hours a week.

So far, Macomb alone has placed 27 people in jobs through the program and plans to place 252 throughout the grant period.

Lawrence Technological University, already an inherently STEM-centered school, will deepen its offerings when it opens the Taubman Complex next year at the Southfield campus. The complex will house the Marburger STEM Center, which will have labs and be home to a robotics program.

The school asked leaders of companies what skills they need and is building experiential applied learning programs to suit. Software engineering is one big area of demand, said LTU President Virinder Moudgil.

Other initiatives

Here’s a sampling of some of the other organizations and initiatives surrounding STEM workforce development: Project Lead the WayFocus: HopeWorkforce Intelligence NetworkGlobal DetroitDetroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program and the STEM Careers and Skilled Trades Task Force, which is organized by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments and Metropolitan Affairs Coalition.

Troy-based Diversified Industrial Staffing Inc. is launching its own training program out of frustration in trying to find skilled workers. The top four jobs in demand right now are CNC machinists, skilled welders, manufacturing equipment repair technicians and operators of coordinate measuring machines, President Todd Palmer said.

Most of these workers are 50 to 60 years old. The problem is getting someone to pay for training of younger workers. Either the would-be trainees don’t have enough money to do it, or the employers don’t want to chance investing in people.

“It’s a Catch-22,” Palmer said. “Everybody sees the need. Nobody wants to pay for it.”

Michigan Advanced Technician Training, or Mat2, is a state program that funnels high school seniors and graduates into skilled labor jobs through alternating periods of schooling and work. It works fine for large companies but is ill-suited for smaller ones that need workers on site every day, he said.

“Both sides want to kick the can. It’s going to have to reach a breaking point,” Palmer said. Until then, most companies prefer to pilfer talent from competitors.

Tweaking the message


The Chase report called for an overarching organization to align the many efforts aimed at the skills gap. But Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association, and others said the issue is better handled locally, where schools are in close contact with local employers.

Better communication would make the biggest difference, Palmer said.

“If I was the STEM czar of Michigan, I’d like to see a concerted marketing effort to make STEM jobs and STEM education cool for kids in the seventh grade and up,” he said.

That refrain is heard throughout conversations on STEM education. After years of parents and students walking away from manufacturing, few realize that real money and careers can be made there. Messaging and programs need to start earlier in students’ education, those versed in the subject say.

TED plans to make available a video series aimed at getting elementary school students thinking about technical work. It also plans to release new videos at the Mackinac Policy Conferenceshowing television show host Mike Rowe speaking on opportunities in technical work.

Snyder also proposes beefing up funding for career technical education to allow students to do dual enrollment at their high schools and community colleges at the same time.

Driving home the point for Comai of the state’s Talent Investment Agency was an astronaut she happened to meet at an event in April who said younger astronauts come armed with doctorates but don’t know how to use basic hand tools.

“The goal is to make sure people understand what are the high-demand jobs that are well-paying and can support a family, many of those highly technical,” Comai said.

Some of the work already being done to this end includes Macomb Community College’s participation in Mat2. And both Lawrence Tech and Macomb hold robotics fairs where schoolchildren get hands-on experience in projects involving math, computer science and mechanical engineering all at once — even if they don’t realize it.

John Dugger, a professor in the School of Technology Studies at Eastern Michigan University, heads the Michigan affiliate of Project Lead the Way, which delivers engineering and biomedical courses to high schools and middle schools. In Michigan, 118 schools participate, with more expected to take part this year.

“To meet future needs and create opportunities for students that result in a good quality of life, we have to start much earlier,” Dugger said. “That’s what we’re all about.”

The courses are developed by teachers and engineers. To be certified to use the program, schools must demonstrate links to local industries and employers.

For example, the Plymouth-Canton Educational Park, comprising three high schools, has a STEM Academy that thas two tracks, biomedical science and engineering.

Students who pass a national Project Lead the Way exam get college credit at participating schools such as EMU, under its engineering technology program, or Kettering University in Flint.

Forget the unicorns


Students in the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools’ STEM Academy complete a gram stain from bacteria they cultured in a Principles of Biomedical Science class.

While the actual numbers are uncertain, everyone agrees that skilled workers are definitely needed. But the issue is more complicated than it appears, Hansen said.

Economists he has spoken with note that high-paying industries “never seem to have a problem finding workers,” he said. “Maybe there’s a shortage in certain skill areas, but it could be a wage issue as well.”

When peeling back the layers, Hansen has seen employers who start off lamenting a lack of skilled talent go on to describe a set of needs that would drive most people away.

“You start really pressing them, and it’s, “Well, we put an ad in the paper saying we need someone for the second shift, 60 miles from the nearest town, six days a week, and we can’t find anyone to pass a drug test’ … and they’re wanting to pay 50 cents over minimum wage,” he said.

Educators also have to be careful not to train people for very specific employer needs at one point in time, only to watch those needs evaporate. Better to give students a base set of skills from which they can adapt, Hansen said.

Employers can be forgiven for needing a hand after watching years of career and technical education in retreat, Comai said. In the past, “employers only had to do a little bit of training to get (new workers) up to speed.”

But the difference has grown too great for them to do it all now, she said.

Joseph Petrosky, dean of the engineering and advanced technology department at Macomb Community College, said employers are starting to understand that they need to stop looking for unicorns — workers who are perfectly suited to very specific jobs but don’t actually exist. Now that they’re out of survival mode after the recession, they’re warming to restarting apprenticeship programs.

Whatever the number of jobs there will be, it’s clear that in some areas, demand outstrips supply. At LTU, when one company hired a crop of engineers and asked for more, a dean asked a group of students whether they were interested.

“Not a single person raised a hand,” Moudgil said. “Every person already had a job and signed a contract.”

The problem isn’t just local. Emerging economies will continue to invest in themselves and challenge the U.S. in technology.

“The issue is to be competitive on a global scale.” Moudgil said. “This is what the country needs to be: the pre-eminent leader in the free world.”

 May 28, 2015 | Crain’s Detroit Business