Building Minnesota’s STEM Workforce

Minnesota colleges are updating and expanding their science, technology, engineering and math programs to meet business needs in a 21st century economy.
Building Minnesota’s STEM Workforce

Shane Arndt saw an opportunity to build a career in a technical field that held strong personal appeal.

After a few years as a police officer, Arndt chose to follow his deep interest in computers and digital technology, so he returned to school at Central Lakes College in Brainerd to earn an associate degree in robotics and automated technology.

Now he’s a controls technician for a German multinational engineering and electronics company, Robert Bosch GmbH. Arndt travels throughout the United States and worldwide to install and maintain robotically driven packaging equipment used by a variety of Bosch customers. He’s held the job for a little over a year, and he’s enjoying it.

Arndt and his new job reflect a movement within the U.S. work world—developing skilled workers in occupations in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s not a new workforce need. But with impending retirements of baby boomers and business processes of all kinds becoming more digitally driven, industries and governments are worried that there won’t be a large enough hiring pool of skilled STEM workers.

STEM jobs include engineering and IT work. But particularly in greater Minnesota, there’s a demand for STEM-trained employees at manufacturing firms, which have been increasingly incorporating CNC (computer numerical control) cutting, robotic welding and other technology into their processes. There’s also a small but steadily growing development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones. The UAVs can be used in various applications, including agriculture. With funding help from the state and federal governments, colleges and universities have expanded their offerings in STEM-related disciplines.

Still, will there be enough STEM workers in the future? In addition to building college-level programs, STEM advocates in higher education, industry and the nonprofit sector are promoting interest in these fields among K-12 students.

Growing STEM demand

The term “STEM” seems straightforward enough. But the type of education and employment that it entails is remarkably fluid.

“There’s not a good way to define what a STEM job is,” says Tim Barrett, director of STEM education and workforce development for the Minnesota High Tech Association (MHTA). “It’s constantly changing. There are new industries and new technologies that are developing.” Some state and federal organizations include health care as part of STEM; others keep it separate. That reality complicates data collection and planning for STEM jobs.

“We anticipate by the year 2020, we’re going to need more than 153,000 STEM workers,” Barrett says. “Currently we estimate that number [of STEM employees] at about 132,000.” In addition, Barrett notes that there are a lot of people who’ve delayed retirement because of the recent recession. “The general STEM workforce tends to be older than the general Minnesota workforce,” he says. That means that employers will need to address a coming wave of retirements as well as the need to fill additional STEM jobs.

Allison Liuzzi, research scientist for the Minnesota Compass project at St. Paul-based Wilder Research, reports expected growth in STEM occupations over the next decade or so is around 18 percent in Minnesota. By comparison, “when we look at all occupations, it’s at about 13 percent job growth,” she says. Wilder Research is a part of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

Why are STEM skills expected to be in greater demand? In many occupations, the nature of work is changing. This shift in our occupational structure, where the jobs that used to support a family, notably manufacturing, has been going on for a while, Liuzzi notes. The United States is morphing into a more information-based economy. Manufacturing and trades still require hard skills, but digital technologies are enabling new production processes. “As we shift more into this technologically based, information-based economy, we need workers who aren’t just trained on one machine or one skill,” Liuzzi says. “We need nimble workers.”

That’s a statewide need. “You’re going to hear about [STEM demand] more in the metro area,” Barrett says. “But it’s really a different kind of need in other parts of the state; you’ll find that manufacturing is having more difficulty finding people to work in these more high-tech versions of manufacturing.”

Barrett notes that the nature of manufacturing has changed. When some people think of manufacturing, they envision “dirty, greasy, laborious work.” But, he says, most of the manufacturing that has come back to Minnesota in a big way in the past five or six years is advanced manufacturing. This embraces a number of practices, including precision measuring, welding and cutting techniques that employ high-tech machinery. “It’s very neat, very challenging work,” Barrett says.

Advanced manufacturing work typically requires some college—a certification, a two-year degree, or a bachelor’s degree. Advanced manufacturing and other STEM-related occupations, such as civil engineers, scientists and IT specialists, require students with strong interest and commitment. With demand for these types of employees expected to rise, the State of Minnesota has to ascertain that “our STEM pipeline from early childhood through middle career is as robust as we need it to be,” Liuzzi says.

College-business connection

Minnesota’s colleges and universities have been responding to increased employer demands. The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU) expanded its math and science programs, and its eight “centers of excellence” that focus on workforce development in specialized areas, and incorporate STEM disciplines in their degree programs. The 360 Manufacturing and Applied Engineering ATE Regional Center of Excellence, centered at Bemidji State University, is a collaborative of 15 MnSCU institutions working on improving manufacturing education throughout the state. One of its goals is developing employees who are adept in “advanced manufacturing,” which incorporates high-tech machinery such as robotics and micromachining equipment.

Production technicians increasingly need advanced skill sets in areas that include safety, quality testing and manufacturing processes, says 360 Manufacturing executive director Karen White. Her center’s consortium partners are developing curricula that address these needs, and helping schools purchase upgraded lab equipment so they can teach the latest skills.

Are 360’s efforts building a new generation of manufacturing employees? The number of May 2014 graduates from MnSCU’s 360 affiliated manufacturing programs was 36 percent higher than the programs’ 2010-12 baseline data, White says. According to the latest placement data from May 2013, 85 percent of graduates from 360 affiliated manufacturing programs landed work in their field of study “right out of college, with an average wage of over $18 an hour,” White adds. For these graduates, the average raise was 7 percent after six months on the job.

MnSCU institutions aren’t the only colleges and universities in Minnesota that have spent money beefing up their STEM offerings. The state’s private liberal arts colleges have science and math built into their curricula, and the University of Minnesota has longstanding engineering programs. Even those schools that don’t have engineering programs per se have relevant offerings. St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, for instance, offers a master’s degree in geographic information science. GIS is “an upcoming field” that addresses multiple disciplines, says Matt Nowakowski, dean of St. Mary’s Graduate School of Business and Technology.

GIS processes large amounts of mapping data derived from satellites for a variety of applications. In agriculture, GIS technology is used to detect and monitor aquifers and determine nitrogen levels in soil for proper spreading of fertilizer. Health systems use GIS for determining strategic placement of hospitals. All told, GIS education is an area with a lot of student and employer interest, Nowakowski says.

Employers have long had a voice in helping guide MnSCU STEM programs. Employers of STEM-based employees “are willing to train on some of the more technical skills,” says Mary Rothchild, MnSCU senior system director for workforce development. MnSCU’s manufacturing and IT graduates are well educated to “the level of immediate employment,” she explains. The problem for public higher education, she adds, is that “we can’t teach to every specific skill.”

Rothchild says that what employers want is a full-degree program that’s specialized to meet their skill needs. Employers, she adds, can work with the colleges to embed those skills in existing degree programs. MnSCU, she says, can provide “75 to 90 percent” of what employees need for welding, quality assurance and safety practices via manufacturing degree programs. But if an outstate medical device manufacturer requires very tight welds for certain components, she says, “we don’t have a widespread capability to teach people to that level of skill.” For those, employers will have to train.

“Employers say they can’t find skilled employees,” Rothchild adds. “But you need to dive a bit deeper to understand what they’re looking for.”


0116-BuildingMNStem_S01.jpg From 2012 to 2022, the number of people employed in STEM jobs is expected to increase by 10.7 percent in Minnesota and 15.7 percent in the U.S. Job growth for all occupations will be slower, with a projected 7 percent increase in Minnesota and a 10.8 percent jump for the nation. Based on 2013 data, 17.1 percent of Minnesotans work in STEM jobs, which compares with 16.8 percent nationally.

Priming the pump

While many young people are enchanted with the capabilities of high technology—social media, texting and mobile gaming—fewer are interested in actually learning the math, science and engineering behind them. That’s a challenge for K-12 educators. “So often, we treat STEM as if it’s broccoli,” the MHTA’s Barrett says. “It’s good for you, but who wants to eat it?”

Barrett’s organization and many others have been developing ways to encourage young people to see STEM fields as fascinating and remunerative career possibilities. One MHTA program is getSTEM, which provides teaching materials and equipment to schools. It also connects schools and students with area businesses, which can provide additional resources as well as employees in STEM fields who can discuss job opportunities and inspire interest. The University of Minnesota has several programs promoting STEM interest and education, including STEM summer day camps for students entering their junior and senior years in high school.

For college students, the MHTA Foundation offers scholarships for Minnesota undergraduates in STEM fields. It awarded 18 scholarships in November for students in two- and four-year programs. In addition, the foundation has established an undergraduate internship program that connects STEM students with small businesses. A broad-based coalition of businesses and other organizations called the Minnesota STEM Network hosts a STEM Day at the State Fair that gives young people the chance to learn about STEM in fun, hands-on ways.

MnSCU colleges and centers of excellence focus on high school preparation and exposure to careers, Rothchild says. These have included robotics camps, where teams of high school students compete across the state to create working robots. The MnSCU 360 Manufacturing and Advance IT centers of excellence have developed STEM-related curricula for middle and high schools—which are particularly useful for rural schools. 360 Manufacturing has created online courses for rural high schools, many of which have had to trim technology education programs due to budgetary constraints.

Businesses also are taking charge of their workforce needs. Alexandria Industries, a manufacturer of custom aluminum extrusions, plastic injection components and other products for medical devices, agricultural machinery and other industries, has had a shortage of qualified employees. To prime the pump for future workers, it has been helping the new Alexandria Area High School develop an Engineering, Manufacturing Technologies & Natural Resources Learning Academy. It has donated equipment and developed curricula.

Creating momentum

Despite an array of efforts to expand STEM interest, Minnesota STEM advocates contend that much more needs to be done to attract students. “There’s a disconnect between the measures of interest in STEM and levels of achievement,” Liuzzi says. “The disparity we see in particular is by race.” Those disparities show up most glaringly on math and science tests at various grade levels, as well as on ACT scores. “But when we look at interest along that continuum, there are really no differences between white students and students of color,” she says. The challenge is to translate that interest into achievement. As Minnesota’s population becomes more diverse racially and ethnically, students of color will become a larger part of the emerging workforce. “It’s really critical that we solve this issue,” Liuzzi says.

One organization focused on attracting students of color into STEM programs is the North Star STEM Alliance. It’s a partnership of 14 colleges and universities, the MHTA, the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership. The alliance sponsors a variety of programs, including visits to colleges, and it provides industry speakers and symposiums.

Businesses requiring STEM-educated employees will need to tap a more diverse pool of candidates, and they’re already looking for a more diverse skill set.

Three years ago, 360 Manufacturing asked Minnesota companies about the competencies of MnSCU manufacturing graduates. The major feedback White’s consortium received was that while graduates had strong technical skills, “they struggled with how to be a productive employee.” In response, 360 Manufacturing has developed “learning modules” available to schools, colleges and businesses that impart soft skills. Those entail career success strategies, such as techniques for working with co-workers.

Many in the STEM education field say that employers are looking for STEM employees who are well-rounded, not just technically skilled. Russell Fraenkel, interim executive director of Advance IT Minnesota, another MnSCU center of excellence, notes that an employee with low social skills will have a harder time succeeding in the work world than in the past. Along with IT businesses, Advance IT has co-developed the Fusion program, where MnSCU students work at a company for nine to 12 months. This allows students to not only gain IT expertise, but also learn how to communicate and collaborate with colleagues.

That blending of hard and soft skills is what Wilder Research’s Liuzzi says employers absolutely need for a 21st century workforce.

Gene Rebeck is a Duluth-based freelance journalist who writes monthly for Twin Cities Business.