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Originally published Tuesday, October 31, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnists

High-demand employment requires high-caliber education

The state of Washington is not adequately preparing our children for the jobs our economy is producing. Because of this, our economy is...

Special to The Times

The state of Washington is not adequately preparing our children for the jobs our economy is producing. Because of this, our economy is put at risk and our children are missing opportunities to get better jobs, provide for their families and enjoy a high quality of life.

But, we have a tremendous opportunity to fix this problem, starting with the 2007 legislative session.

Employers in Washington are among the most technologically advanced in the world. Not surprisingly, the people who work here are also among the best-educated. We lead the nation in per-capita employment of engineers, and are in the top 10 states for per-capita employment of computer scientists, life scientists, technology workers and many other advanced fields.

Unfortunately, according to the National Science Foundation, Washington is 36th out of the 50 states in per-capita production of bachelor's degrees. Even worse, we're 38th in graduating students in science and engineering fields, the very fields we lead the nation in employing. And when it comes to graduate students in these fields, we rank 42nd out of the 50 states.

The net result, of course, is that graduates from other states move here in disproportionately high numbers. Too many of our children miss out on the opportunities their parents are working to create, because they are unable to get the appropriate education here, close to those jobs.

Between 2007 and 2012, Washington's Employment Security Department predicts that 47 percent of the openings in our state that require a bachelor's degree will come in the fields for computer specialists, engineers, medical researchers, life scientists, nurses and secondary teachers.

Yet, only approximately 14 percent of the students graduating from our schools are earning degrees in these fields. The state predicts nearly 3,900 computer-specialist job openings each year alone, yet colleges and universities in Washington annually produce only about 635 graduates in this field.

Our educational priorities are out of sync with the needs of our economy. Our graduates are not prepared to fill the jobs our employers are creating.

Expanding high-quality education is a fundamental goal in working to create jobs and ensure widespread prosperity in the Puget Sound region and throughout Washington. We must increase the number of people who earn bachelor's degrees if we are to achieve these goals. Last year, 28,625 people earned a bachelor's degree in our state. By 2010, 36,000 people should earn one each year.

And we need to increase our production of key associate's degrees as well, such as for lab technicians and therapists. These two fields are inextricably linked to our bachelor's degree needs, and filling this capacity will ensure we have workers with skills across the spectrum, able to fill many different jobs.

Since January, we have been working to assess Washington's capacity to educate students in these critical fields. We found that seats in our colleges and universities are being left open because the schools are not receiving the support from the state to provide this education. There is room in the system for as many as 5,300 more students to be educated each year, resulting in almost 1,000 more bachelor's degrees, and almost 1,700 new associate's degrees, annually.

For approximately $90 million in the upcoming biennium, we can fill this capacity and ensure we are educating as many Washington students as possible for the jobs our economy is producing. This is a reasonable first step in meeting this challenge.

Washington's Office of Financial Management predicts that, heading into the 2007 budget cycle, the state will have a surplus of approximately $1.1 billion. This is due largely to healthy economic activity and higher-than-expected employment. Our economy is generating the fuel to solve this problem. The sensible thing to do is re-invest a portion of this surplus in our people, and fill the existing capacity in our high-demand fields.

The state of Washington faces a turning point. We are thriving economically, but a shortage of degrees is straining our ability to keep up with the demands of our dynamic economy. We have the resources and the brainpower to prevent that from happening. We must take steps this coming year to remain competitive because if we fail to act, jobs and economic prosperity could pass us by.

Rick Bender, president of the Washington State Labor Council, co-chairs the Prosperity Partnership, a coalition of 207 organizations working to create 100,000 jobs in the central Puget Sound region. David Tang, a Seattle attorney, chairs the Prosperity Partnership's higher-education working group. Susannah Malarkey is executive director of the Technology Alliance and a member of the partnership's higher-education working group.

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