Home-Grown Economic Development

Skilled workers educated in STEM will help America's economy.

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Dr. Mel Schiavelli is president of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania and a charter member of the Manufacturing Institute's Education Council. Founded in 2001, Harrisburg University is the only STEM-focused comprehensive university between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.  

The engines powering economic growth tend to sputter initially, hesitate, and then gradually accelerate.

Judging by recent advertising campaigns for iPads, iPhones, and computers that feature innovations such as computer text to speech, the cellphone camera, and the ever-increasing array of apps that give users abilities such as making payments on store purchases, the national economy is gaining speed, a reflection of consumer fascination with the latest and greatest as much as the evolution and pace of manufacturing.

There's no doubt that we are in the innovation age, of developing new technologies, and of taking existing technologies to the next level. This cycle will drive the 21st century economy.

Behind the enticing imagery, though, of a dynamic economy and thriving marketplace lie some hard truths. The high-tech gadgetry, equipment, and devices that have served the ever-consumptive population well have required—and will continue to require—the front-end manufacturing and science expertise necessary to keep this nation competitive in the global economy.

In other words, a new kind of workforce, highly skilled and educated so that upon hiring, employees can hit the ground running, anticipate marketplace demands, and develop professionally so as to define and continually redefine their jobs, and not be rendered obsolete.

This obsolescence, unfortunately, is marring the national template for economic development. Take the so-called rust belt of manufacturing, where unemployment hovers around 9 percent. But lack of jobs is not the culprit.

What's missing are the skilled workers needed to fill them. A recent report by Deloitte for the Manufacturing Institute, based on a survey of manufacturers, found that as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfulfilled. Although the stigma of manufacturing jobs and the widespread perception that manufacturing is a "dying industry" are certainly factors in this dearth, the primary element in the employment gap is the shortage of competent, highly qualified workers.

This means, for example, that companies need specialists who can program computer numerically controlled machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, not tool and die makers.

Skilled workers educated in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) area are desperately needed to fill these valuable positions that will have a direct impact on the competitiveness of companies and the surge of the economy.

Harrisburg is answering this call and, as a result, is establishing an "economic development supply chain" for the global marketplace—a STEM hub in which business and education team up to provide a steady stream of workforce-ready, technically proficient workers.

Facing the reality of a post-industrial decline of the 1980s, Harrisburg, through the vision and courage of its corporate, government, and community leaders, reinvented the region by focusing on the future and being committed to staying ahead of the curve. In 1997, a group of corporate, government, and community leaders called for the creation of a regional task force that would identify strategies to guide central Pennsylvania through its next 20 years.

With the support of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber of Commerce, this group of community leaders formed a 150-member task force that studied issues of government, private sector leadership, education, quality of life, economic development, and regional infrastructure and interviewed over 1,000 individuals in central Pennsylvania during the course of its work. The report of the task force, ENVISION Capital Region—a Focus on Our Future, identified four measures of regional success, one of which was educational achievement in the region's population, and the report emphasized the need for a partnership between business and education to create workforce-ready graduates.

It was clear to the group that higher education and new skill sets were needed for job growth as the age of emerging technology and new materials brought more sophisticated products and processes to industry, the business office, and the retail environment. Manufacturing was no longer a low-skill, repetitive process, but involved a high level of technical knowledge coupled with strong decision-making and team-building skills. Collars were no longer blue or white, and workers would have to embrace lifelong learning to continue building new skills and to thrive in the workplace.

The reality of the 21st century business world—where companies' abilities to succeed rely on a workforce that excels in the STEM disciplines—certainly hastened Harrisburg's rebirth. From the time Harrisburg's leaders recognized the urgency to link business with education, and established Harrisburg University of Science and Technology to focus strictly on the fields this century now demands—science, technology, engineering, and math—till now, the objective has been to spearhead new ways of catalyzing education so innovation and a dynamic economy naturally follow.

Innovative thinking, a willingness to reinvest locally, and a calculated risk to link business with education are the key chapters rewriting the history of Harrisburg. It's a story that, throughout the nation's history, is what has always helped propel the economy forward—and is doing just that in central Pennsylvania.