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Originally published November 14, 2013 at 4:48 PM | Page modified November 14, 2013 at 5:29 PM

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Better STEM education, training needed for mismatched workers

Continuing education is about competing in the workforce and being prepared for what comes next, writes Lynne K. Varner. Thank Boeing for that lesson.

Times editorial columnist

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Boeing is not bluffing about its need for skilled workers or for Washington state to commit to continuous investment in skills training and an educational pipeline that promotes many of this state’s top industries, from aviation to technology.

Though the Machinists rejected Boeing’s contract offer Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature stepped up with a smart deal last week. It includes $5 million for the Central Sound Aerospace Training Center in Renton, $8 million for 1,000 new full-time community college slots in aerospace-related studies for the 2014-15 school year, and $500,000 for a fabrication composite-wing training program for current aerospace workers run by the Washington Aerospace Training and Research Center at Edmonds Community College. Additional money will go toward expanding and updating the training center.

For those unsettled by the hastiness of the state’s legislative package for Boeing, that’s another lesson the company is teaching us. Anticipate industry needs before they become drama in Olympia.

“We don’t know enough, and we don’t know enough soon enough,” says Marty Brown, executive director for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, about Washington’s challenge anticipating the needs of major employers.

Business and industry groups are trying to change this with studies and surveys underscoring a stark gap between skills required for jobs and the skills possessed by job seekers.

A survey of Washington employers by the Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board found that one in five employers had trouble finding qualified applicants, and a third ended up leaving the jobs unfilled.

This summer, community and technical college and business leaders toured the state to better understand industry employment needs. In Southwest Washington, where the unemployment rate is around 11 percent, paper-mill employers said most of their applicants lacked the necessary math, language and computer skills to be hired.

The skills mismatch threatens industries trying to grow and people searching for living-wage jobs.

Particular urgency is assigned to science, technology, engineering and math-related industries because job growth in these areas is three times the rate in other sectors. Washington ranks first among states in the concentration of STEM-related employment.

Job growth is only good news if job seekers are ready when opportunity knocks. Many are not. Just 30 percent of U.S. high school graduates are ready to do college-level science. In Washington, nearly half of fourth-grade teachers report teaching science for fewer than two hours per week, according to Washington STEM, a nonprofit advocating for more science and technology education. Only four states reported less science instruction.

Efforts started in the K-12 education system with the newly adopted Next Generation Science Standards. The Legislature must finish changing state law to require 24 credits for a high school diploma, so high schools can add another year of science.

Also needed are more partnerships between public schools and specific industries. The few out there, Raisbeck Aviation High School in the Highline School District, Delta High School in the Tri-Cities and Cleveland High School in Seattle, cannot serve all the students interested.

So let’s develop more STEM and technical training opportunities in existing schools. We do this already with advanced placement curricula and, most recently, with International Baccalaureate programs.

Beyond high school, young people should have choices that include professional and technical training programs and four-year baccalaureate programs.

“We need to be thoughtful about this because it is important to have these dollars invested in the right kind of training,” says Marlena Sessions, chief executive of the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County.

If Boeing moves work on the 777X out of state, Washington still needs to prepare the next generation of workers for industries, including aerospace. The fundamental issues are larger than the debate of the moment.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner

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