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Thursday, February 7, 2013 - Page updated at 08:30 p.m.

Jerry Large
Help wanted for tech jobs and our schools

By Jerry Large
Seattle Times staff columnist

Monday I wrote about proposals to raise the lid on visas for highly educated foreign workers, particularly for high-tech companies. Today I want to follow one of the threads from that column.

I quoted Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill & Melinda Gates chair in computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, as saying business is creating lots of jobs in Washington, but we’re not doing enough to prepare this state’s young people to compete for those jobs.

I asked him to tell me more because in his position he has to think about who’s coming into the UW from K-12, about the college experience and about what happens to students after university.

“You know, I live in Ballard, and a hundred years ago it was fishing and timber, and those are goods whose contents are completely physical ... ” Then for many years the vanguard of the economy was manufacturing, electronics, aerospace and so on, producing goods with a mix of physical and intellectual content. All of that still exists, but the vanguard now, he said, is mostly intellectual, which requires a different workforce.

“We have an education system here that is not preparing enough of our kids for those jobs.”

In areas like software, we’re always going to be a net importer of talent, Lazowska said. We’re home to a number of large, international technology companies that have their pick of workers from across the country and around the world. But, he said, it’s important to see that young people in this state, “who have the desire and the ability have the opportunity to get ready (to compete for those jobs), and that’s not the case today.”

Lazowska produced an avalanche of statistics, reports, charts and graphs. Here’s some of the most important information.

Compared with the 10 states that have technology economies most like ours, we have the leakiest pipeline from ninth grade to graduation from either a two-year or four-college. Of 100 students who enter ninth grade in Washington, only 18 will get a four-year college degree within six years of high-school graduation.

“That is far the worst of any tech state and among the worst for the whole country,” Lazowska said.

One result is that relative to our population, Washington is the largest importer of people with a bachelor’s degree.

People are being lost all along the state’s leaky pipeline from ninth grade through college. Of each 100 students entering ninth grade, 31 don’t graduate high school on time, 34 don’t enroll directly in college after high school, 10 who enroll in college don’t come back for their sophomore year and seven don’t graduate within three years for two-year colleges or six years for four-year schools.

Even the students who go straight to college often lack the math skills that are one of the foundations of success in the sciences, Lazowska said.

The need for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) graduates isn’t equal across all areas. The biggest gap between the number of graduates and the number of jobs is in computer science, and the second-largest is in engineering. He produced a chart that showed small gaps in the other sciences.

The UW gets far more applicants for spots in computer science than the department can admit. And more companies want to participate in the annual job fair than the UW can accommodate.

Big tech companies are only interested in elite graduates, but they aren’t the only businesses that need computer-science and engineering graduates. There are jobs outside Microsoft, Google or Amazon, at banks, insurance companies and elsewhere. When the state doesn’t produce enough qualified graduates, the hurt is felt most by Washington’s unprepared young people and by smaller companies that rely more heavily on the local workforce.

A document Lazowska gave me has a statement from Washington’s Strategic Master Plan for Higher Education: “We will reduce employers’ need to import people with advanced degrees or specialized skills from other states and countries. The best jobs in Washington will go to Washingtonians educated in our colleges and universities.”

A different report last week found Washington among top 10 states in cuts to higher education.

We know there’s a problem. What are we going to do about it?

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or tter@jerrylarge

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