Some Communities Suffer More From Lack of STEM Workers

Community colleges can help to bridge the gap.

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Some regions are feeling the deficiency of workers who lack math and science skills more than others, experts said Thursday at the U.S. News STEM Solutions 2012 summit in Dallas. Educators and state and local governments are working to address the factors that make some communities struggle the most in improving STEM education.

One key issue is demographics; college is simply not presented as a viable option for students in some poor or minority communities.

"Too many young people were told that they weren't college material," said Diana Natalicio, president of the University of Texas—El Paso. "It wasn't because they didn't have academic credentials; it was that they were low-income and Spanish-speaking."

Natalicio says that it's important to make sure that all students have the opportunity for higher education, and that one solution is the "early-college high school." In four years at these schools, students can earn an associate's degree along with their high school diplomas, as well as credit toward a bachelor's degree. This type of program can open the college door for students who might otherwise not pursue higher education.

However, there is also the problem of keeping those newly-educated people in the region. Natalicio speaks of the difficulty of keeping these students in the communities that invested in educating them. That means that along with a focus on improving educational performance, a region must also work to attract businesses and create jobs to employ new graduates—a solution that is much more easily said than done.

Community colleges could serve a key role in counter-acting that brain drain. Dallas County Community College forms part of the "backbone" of the local economy, says Mary Brumbach, executive district director of strategic funding at that school, educating local residents that often are working while they're in school.

Nationally, she said, 44 percent of engineers learn science and math at community colleges, as do 50 percent of people who get bachelors' in engineering and 30 percent who get engineering master's degrees. And a large portion of DCCC students tend to stay in the region: 75 percent stay in the county, and 95 percent stay within the state, according to Brumbach.

If DCCC is any example, community colleges can continue equipping people with STEM skills that will allow them to advance in the workplace—perhaps at jobs they already have—and thus help to keep those skills around.

"We're where the students are, and that's the beginning of making the change that needs to happen," she said.