Milwaukee Biz Blog: Investment in STEM education could pay off for Wisconsin

State needs to fill "skills gap"

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This past summer, a Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) survey reported 70 percent of top business executives in Wisconsin expressed difficulty in finding quality workers. This has been a persistent trend in their recent economic outlook surveys, and has fueled a larger debate over whether the Badger State is held back by a “skills gap,” where open jobs go unfilled because the labor force lacks the necessary qualifications.

While some economists are skeptical of the notion of a skills gap, business leaders and lawmakers as diverse as Republican Governor Scott Walker and state Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, believe that Wisconsin has fallen behind in training the next generation of workers.

As a recent report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) highlights, the response to this problem has been a robust focus in teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education in K-12 public schools. This investment could pay off for Wisconsin.

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STEM is more than just a buzzword in education. And it’s certainly more than just playing with robots – although that can be a part of it. A STEM education curriculum encourages problem solving and teaches students that there might be multiple ways to reach an outcome. It cultivates teamwork, and even encourages students to fail as part of a learning process. It also exposes students to emerging technology, like 3-D printers and plasma cutters, which have the potential to revolutionize our world.

Ultimately, STEM equips students with the skills they need for work in in-demand fields. According to projections from 2014, STEM jobs are expected to grow at 16 percent in the years leading up to 2024. The median-wage for STEM work is $76,000, and many so-called “blue collar” STEM jobs, like those in construction, manufacturing, and health care, don’t require a traditional four-year degree.

While an education and career in science, technology, and math is not for everyone, all children deserve the opportunity to pursue it.

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In Wisconsin, the commitment to STEM education has been a collaborative effort. At the school level, forward-thinking educators at schools like LakeView Technology Academy in Kenosha County and Three Lakes School District in Oneida County, have gone all-in to offer STEM at their schools. They have invested in technology, dramatically adjusted their curriculum, and sought partnerships with the business community and tech colleges. The results have been a more engaged student body leaving high school prepared for the workforce, or ready to jump into further learning at a tech college, trade school, or a university

Likewise, businesses around the state are making the investment in time, relationships, and money to make STEM education successful. Take the Ariens Company, led by Dan Ariens, which has invested $1.5 million in the Brillion School District to create a STEM program in the tiny community that is second to none. The results have been internships and careers for local students, along with an active partnership that provides the school access to experienced professionals.

The state has opened up new avenues for resources if school districts want to offer a STEM education. Fabrication Labs, or Fab Labs, are high-tech workshops with common tools and technology that provide students with the hands-on experience that makes for a successful STEM education. In 2015, the state offered Fab Lab grants of up to $25,000 for 25 schools. Due to the huge demand (90 schools applied in the first year), Gov. Walker and the state legislature will be offering more Fab Lab grants in the next state budget.

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STEM education should not be mistaken for a silver bullet solution. Talk of a “skills gap” will not be a narrative that goes away quickly. But the collaborative investment from the state, the business community, and school leaders have Wisconsin on its way to equipping students for the 21st Century economy.

Collin Roth is a research fellow for the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL).

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