Dana Connors, Rachel Kerestes: STEM Funding, Education and People Development Are Key to Maine’s Economic Future – Lewiston Sun Journal | Team Cansler

Dana Connors

Rachel Kerestes

Gov. Janet Mills signed into law the Maine Space Corp earlier this year. hoping to lead the state into the next age of our space economy.

The historic public-private company promises to create up to 5,500 jobs and add more than $1 billion to Maine’s economy over the next 20 years.

Months later, as employers are challenged to fill vacancies across the economy, questions remain. Where does Maine get the human talent to fill these jobs? How will people receive education and training and ultimately be recruited, especially as the working-age population falls from 745,000 in 2006 to 703,000 in 2019?

Maine is already struggling to meet the need for skilled workers for current job openings in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These positions pay better than non-STEM jobs, and individuals with a high school diploma, a trade school degree, and a two-year community college degree can hold these jobs.

For example, in 2021, the national median wage for a STEM job was $95,000, more than double that for a non-STEM job. Additionally, STEM employment is expected to grow nearly 11% through 2031.

Notably, people without a bachelor’s degree hold six out of 10 STEM jobs in Maine. STEM jobs are also resilient and less prone to layoffs when recessions hit.

Demand for a skilled STEM workforce is sure to increase in the years to come, potentially making recruitment even more challenging.

Planning is critical to our success. In July, the Maine State Chamber — in partnership with the Maine Development Foundation and Educate Maine — released the latest Making Maine Work report, a set of six goals to encourage investment in the state with more than a dozen recommendations and strategies that every goal has to be reached.

Another report from Science is US, the Maine State Chamber, and the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance outlines the steps business leaders, government officials, and high school and college administrators must take to help Maine thrive in the STEM economy in the decades to come can.

Here the possibilities flourish. It is now possible for students to stay here after school and enter a job market that offers pathways to a well-paid, fulfilling living. But we must be diligent as we move forward.

First, Maine must devote adequate financial resources to educating and training STEM workers. Government funding for STEM-related initiatives is less than 1% of gross domestic product. Elsewhere in the region, STEM funding averages more than 4% of GDP. Inequality limits the state’s ability to prepare its current and future workforce and puts Maine at a competitive disadvantage compared to its neighbors.

Second, there needs to be greater investment in K-12 school math and science instruction, including support for the professional development of teachers and staff and increased funding for after-school STEM programs like those in Vermont and Pennsylvania. Easy access to broadband internet services for students and workers to benefit from many online STEM-related programs must also be part of the equation.

Third, the business community and the secondary and higher education systems must build better working relationships to anticipate future STEM workforce needs and create educational pathways for all residents of the state. In addition, the state must help develop programs to reskill current workers in traditional industries for second careers in emerging STEM fields.

There is no doubt about the value of STEM careers to Maine’s economy and the wealth of opportunities they offer to individuals, families and communities. As of 2017, STEM careers accounted for 58% of state jobs, 61% of GDP, and 63% of labor income, while STEM-supported employment generated $4.7 billion in state and local tax revenues.

Maine’s economic success rests on the coordinated efforts of educators, business owners, and advocates of science and technology, not to mention current and future policymakers who must anticipate future labor needs and take productive steps to meet them.

Dana Connors is President of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce in Augusta and Rachel Kerestes is Executive Director of Science is US in Washington, DC

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