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Getting serious about building a world class technology work force

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With the end of the school year here, it seems to make sense to talk about workforce development. There are many efforts in the state and many people passionately trying to get a collar and leash around the giant that is our “education industrial complex.” (If I am allowed to mix metaphors).

The technology and innovation community seems in agreement that a strategic advantage for Connecticut is having a “K-20” school system that really “nails it” when it comes to preparing our young people for the so-called STEM skills. That’s an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. We have a workforce that has more PhDs per capita than any other state and we once were listed as the top state on a list of average IQs. (How do they know? Who’s been going thorough our old Iowa test scores from the 1970s?)

But, how do we stack up when we look at Connecticut’s home grown B.S.’s and A.A.’s who are willing to enter the Connecticut labor market? Are they of a caliber that Japanese, German and America companies say, “wow!”

The answer better be yes. If we settle for “better than upstate New York” or “two percent better than last year” we won’t be protecting the global reputation we have built over who 150 years of having talented people move and be educated here.

As of right now, we are not worse than the rest of the country, but given the higher costs here we need to be a lot more impressive. This is so important to the long term success of the state (check out CTC’s Policy Position White Paper) as a center of innovation that we need to do something, but what? Fortunately, there are lots of groups working on this that you should know about.

Here’s the bottom line for this week’s column: 1)   Connecticut has a great and technically literate workforce when we talk about older people who currently have good jobs, but filling entry level technical positions it is getting very hard, and there are not a lot of folks in the education pipeline. 2)   We say we want to be a center of R&D and commercialization of innovation so we need to succeed at creating an education system demonstrably better than other states and western industrial countries at producing skilled young people. Talking about being better won’t count; companies will look at the data before making investments in facilities here. 3)   There are some good programs that are showcasing our top science students and we should continue to celebrate the kids who do “get it”.

If you have examples of work that you are doing in schools or programs in your towns that are making a difference please let us know about them. Also, if you are planning to hire someone or need an intern, write and tell me your experiences and the skills you are looking for in a locally educated employee.

At the national level there have been a number efforts to create models for an innovation oriented workforce, led by the Business-High Education Forum, Their reports are available over the web and provide the background and a set of solutions that should be followed. They are a blue-ribbon panel and seem to have answered every question that one could imagine about why we need to address this education crisis immediately.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given our tradition or excuse that education policy is a local affair, their reports don’t get a lot of attention. Read them if you can because they should form the basis of legislative initiatives by the technology community in the future.

At the state level we have several groups. I’ll talk about two of them today. The Office of Workforce Competitiveness (OWC) manages a special effort to create specific pathways for our students to secure jobs in Connecticut. They have undertaken a myriad of different approaches, all trying to address issues uncovered in a report completed a few years ago.

OWC put on the high school internet company competition that I wrote about and judged a few weeks ago.  It was great and is the kind of thing we need to advocate for in every school, not just 25 and that all students should be involved with, not just 10 or so at each school.  We have received grants from them to undertake internships and high school based technology programs. They are also engaged in building new high school technology curriculums.  We are also working with them on a website that can steer students to internships called Check it out and sign up to meet good college students interested in working here.

There is also an organization called the Connecticut Academy for Education that helps school districts to think about and implement better STEM programs. They happen to have a major initiative known as CONNvene in conjunction with the Governor’s office. We sit on a CONNvene steering committee and I would be interested in your reactions after checking out the web site.

The question for any innovation community is, what can be done soon to really “move the needle” and have our students be seen as clearly better than others in the U.S.A. when it comes to STEM.  The politics of education are very messy and it is obviously easier to get on Skype and arrange to outsource your next development program to Bangalore than volunteer to develop a new .net curriculum for your local high school.

Still, it is worth our trying to stay very involved.  Many reports are pointing to a rigorous cost benefit analysis that companies are doing when it comes to R&D infrastructure investments. A major issue is the cost of employees and the value that a company gets from their work. An ample supply of very skilled technicians may be as critical as the presence of very senior skilled people in any longe range innovation strategy. Check out this report from a major consultant who is advising clients on their R&D strategies: Innovation Is Global The Way Forward.pdf.

I have often written about the need to emulate countries such as Finland, Denmark, South Korea and Singapore. Their school systems are producing students who excel at STEM skills. Emerging nations such as Russia, India and China are now producing large numbers of technology fluent young people. Quantity, low costs and skill levels will dictate that these nations will be the locus of much of the future R&D investment.

We cannot change the profile of our whole country, but Connecticut could build a system that competes with a Finland or Denmark.

Bottom line, Connecticut needs to put aside budget, union, urban/suburban and control issues and work together when it comes to education and STEM skills. If we cannot back up the rhetoric of “Yankee ingenuity” with test scores that catch the attention of R&D investment decision makers at important global companies, our role in the global marketplace will be very limited.

Matthew Nemerson President & CEO Connecticut Technology Council

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