(TNS) — PLANO — Millions of jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are expected to go unfilled this year. It's a national problem that not enough people are talking about, local business and education leaders said during a panel discussion Tuesday.
The Communities Foundation of Texas and Toyota USA Foundation co-hosted the forum, which stressed the urgency of building a strong education system with a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
"STEM jobs are good jobs," Michael Medalla, manager of the Toyota USA Foundation, said after the event. "These are jobs that command a good salary, that can help people raise a family, lift up the community."
But Toyota has many STEM jobs with no workers to fill them, he said. They're among about 2.4 million STEM-related jobs expected to remain vacant nationwide this year, according to a news release from Toyota Motor North America.
Panelists said closing the STEM skills gap not only is key to helping students secure jobs after graduation but also will help power the region's economy.
"We've got to help people understand that they can succeed in STEM fields," said panelist Neil Matkin, president of Collin College. "The opportunities are there, but somewhere along the way it's either 'too hard' or 'I can't do it,' or 'Where does it lead?'"
The Communities Foundation cites U.S. Department of Labor projections that 15 of the 20 fastest-growing occupations over the next 10 years will require significant preparation in math or science.
Among Toyota's largest number of unfilled jobs are skilled technicians at the automaker's plants, Medalla said. And that's largely due to a misconception among younger workers about the job, he said.
"They're not aware that it's quite a high-tech job," Medalla said. "They're not aware of the robotics and computer programs and all the different electronics that you need to know. There's that mindset that we have to try to breakdown."
Many Dallas-area school districts are pouring millions of dollars into STEM classes -- a strategy that educators say will prepare students for jobs as creators and innovators.
In Collin County, Allen ISD is nearing completion of a $36 million STEAM Center, an Allen High School satellite campus being built with 2015 bond money. It will open later this year. Classes initially will be offered to students in kindergarten through eighth-grade, with high school classes beginning in the 2019-20 school year.
Lovejoy High School in Lucas opened a $9 million wing dedicated to STEM a couple of years ago.
And Dallas ISD transformed an old East Dallas elementary into Solar Preparatory, an all-girls school also focusing on STEAM — a more recent variation of STEM that incorporates the arts. The school also is focused on socioeconomic diversity, meaning that half of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch.
That socioeconomic balance is important when it comes to closing academic achievement gaps in STEM, said George Tang, managing director at Educate Texas, a public-private partnership established by the communities foundation to improve public education.
Tang noted that according to the Texas Education Agency's 2016 state snapshot, about 60 percent of students in Texas are classified as economically disadvantaged. Many such students aren't exposed to STEM pathways and jobs.
"They don't understand the importance or the relevance of STEM," he said.
Organizations like Educate Texas are trying to change that by introducing STEM to students in elementary school, encouraging middle-schoolers to explore STEM paths, and immersing high school students in STEM programs.
The STEM acronym began gaining traction roughly a decade ago, but experts say it's more than a buzzword. It's also no longer just about science, technology, engineering and math.
Those four disciplines remain important, but STEM has become more about how students analyze information, boil it down into a coherent thought and distill it into something meaningful, Tang said.
"What STEM really should stand for is 'successful in today's evolving marketplace,'" he said.
In 2010, President Barack Obama made STEM education and the recruitment of teachers a priority in his Educate to Innovate campaign, setting a 10-year goal for the U.S. to move to the head of the pack in STEM.
The Texas Board of Education has revised high school graduation requirements to put an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Under the new rules, students must choose one of five pathways to graduation, one of which is STEM.
Companies are putting big bucks into STEM as well. Office Depot partnered with Lovejoy ISD to help open its STEM wing, giving the district a $10,000 credit to purchase furniture for a non-traditional classroom with dry erase tables and flat-screen TVs.
On Tuesday, Toyota USA Foundation announced it's giving grants totaling $220,000 to 12 North Texas schools to create access to Project Lead The Way's hands-on learning experiences that aim to give students a design-thinking mindset and prepare them for STEM careers.
"We won't wait and hope that future generations will have the skills needed to fill these jobs," said Al Smith, group vice president and chief social innovation officer for Toyota Motor North America. "We're going to take an active role."
Educate Texas and its partner Texas Instruments Foundation have invested millions in Lancaster ISD as part of the district's initiative to transform every campus into a STEM center.
The Lancaster district also has worked with the University of North Texas at Dallas to design a master's program for teachers in either math, science or STEM to make sure teachers are qualified to teach the curriculum — a challenge among schools with implementing STEM.
Tang partly credited Lancaster ISD's meeting and exceeding state accountability standards to that philanthropic involvement.
The organization now plans to replicate the district-wide STEM initiative in Richardson ISD.
Experts and business leaders in the STEM discussion have stressed the need to focus on middle-skills jobs — those usually requiring more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree.
This month, DISD officials presented the school board a plan to create two more early college high schools and unveiled new career institutes at five campuses.
The institutes, which will begin next school year, overhaul typical career and technical education by requiring that schools partner with local businesses and focus on high-demand jobs such as auto body repair, welding, construction and manufacturing. It's a modernization of traditional career and technical education programs that Medalla, manager of the Toyota USA Foundation, supports.
"Let's have the job as the outcome and align those classes and resources to those good jobs," he said.
DISD's plan follows a March report from the Texas House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness that stresses the importance of fixing the shortage in middle-skills jobs.
Collin College is building a 360,000-square-foot facility specializing in technical workforce education near Allen ISD's under-construction STEAM Center.
The college and public school district also have partnered to build additional classroom and lab space in a shared wing to expand dual credit availability for Allen High School students.
"We've taught our students for two generations that the only way to success is by going to college," said Collin College President Neil Matkin, noting that many students have succeeded by going to technical schools and community colleges. "We've got to build pipelines that help students understand where they can get to from where they are."
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