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Originally published Monday, January 14, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Help businesses fill jobs by investing in community and technical colleges

Clearly, our state must continually upgrade its workforce and technology or risk becoming to high tech what Detroit became to the auto industry, writes guest columnist Richard Cummins.

Special to The Times

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COMPLACENCY can destroy Seattle’s global leadership in technology, just as Detroit lost its command of the auto industry a century ago. Microsoft’s general counsel and executive vice president Brad Smith wondered about that possibility in remarks at the recent 2012 Washington Innovation Summit in Seattle.

Clearly, our state must continually upgrade its workforce and technology or risk becoming to high tech what Detroit became to the auto industry. That means training more residents in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM, so employers can hire homegrown talent to stay ahead in the innovation race.

Right now, Washington faces a critical shortage of STEM-trained workers. However, the state Legislature can turn this situation around by investing in high-demand programs at community and technical colleges.

Our colleges already partner with employers to get training programs up and running in months, not years. Students get the training that employers want and land good jobs when they finish, or they transfer to four-year schools for even higher levels of education. This creates greater value for themselves and our state.

The Legislature’s response should address short- and long-term economic realities. For example, the American Medical Informatics Association estimates it will take at least 200,000 newly trained specialists to meet the national goal of computerized health records by 2014. Thousands of these new jobs will be in Washington, with training efforts fueled by community and technical college programs that are funded by targeted dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. I think it’s time we add medicine to science, technology, engineering and math, and call it STEMM.

Longer term, though, the fields of nursing and other allied health occupations are in huge demand. Health-care employment will have to expand nationally by almost 30 percent overall by 2020, according to a recent Georgetown University report. If Washington state expands Medicaid as proposed in the Affordable Care Act, health-care providers will need to hire staff to serve new patients.

Likewise, aerospace design and manufacturing are expected to experience significant growth, and programs at community and technical colleges will be the solution.

We should refuse to rest on our laurels and invest wisely by creating the smartest workforce in the country. For example, the National Science Foundation predicts a growing demand for skilled workers in nanotechnology. Invest in our colleges to train the next generation of scientists and technicians with groundbreaking courses, internships and partnerships with nanotech companies.

Employers need graduates from every level of higher education — from short-term job certificates to associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees — and two-year colleges can meet their needs. Our students gain skills to enter STEM jobs directly or they transfer to a four-year college.

Thirty-five percent of engineering majors in four-year public colleges and universities transferred from a community or technical college with at least 40 college credits or a degree. Most had a science degree or heavy concentrations of science and math credits. Several community and technical colleges now offer applied baccalaureate degrees in STEM fields.

Over the past four years, the state Legislature cut community and technical college state funding by 26 percent — from $5,160 to $3,840 per full-time equivalent student — and double-digit tuition increases helped fill the void.

Even with the increases, tuition at community and technical colleges is a lot less than other higher education and training options. At 4,000 per year, tuition is one-third the tuition at research universities and half the tuition at our comprehensive state college and universities.

Outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed modest funding increases for community and technical colleges in the 2013-15 budget and additional funds for aerospace training and STEM programs. This is a welcome move in the right direction. We look forward to working with Gov.-elect Jay Inslee and the Legislature to target additional funding for other high-demand programs.

It’s time to change course from past budget cuts and invest strategically to set our economy in motion. As lawmakers write the 2013-15 state budget, they should calculate the return on investment by projecting the kind of decline seen in Detroit. Let’s not continue to confuse expenses with strategic investment.

Decades from now, when business leaders look back on decisions made in 2013, we want them to see not the makings of Detroit but the genesis of a talented and prosperous Washington.

Richard Cummins is president of Columbia Basin College in Pasco.

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