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Appalachia Has STEM Jobs Available. Will Students Have the Skills to Fill Them?

RAND API region.pngIn at least one corner of Appalachia, good mid-level energy-sector jobs are available, thanks to an ongoing natural-gas boom and steady declines in the region's working-age population.

But it remains to be seen whether the area's schools can produce enough workers with the science, technology, engineering and math backgrounds that employers are looking for, according to a new RAND Corporation report examining the STEM labor-force pipeline in a 27-county region spanning Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

"The types of jobs that are now available provide family-sustaining wages and opportunities for advancement, and they don't necessarily require a lot of higher education," said Gabriella C. Gonzalez, a senior social scientist at RAND and the lead author of the new report. "But the rural communities where energy extraction companies in particular need talent are typically less-resourced, and a lot of students are not aware of the opportunities."

There is some good educational news: the percentage of students in the region who are graduating from high school is rising, especially in West Virginia. At the postsecondary level, more students are also earning 2- and 4-year degrees. And the proportion of those degrees that are in STEM-related fields is higher than the national average, RAND found.

But there's also bad news: RAND's analysis of test scores on NAEP, commonly known as the "nation's report card," found that younger students do not appear to be learning the math or science skills and content knowledge often needed for STEM careers.

That's certainly the opinion of the region's employers, Gonzalez said. Many say they have a "dire need" to expand the pool of workers who have "middle-level skills" in STEM fields, are capable of solving problems as part of a team, and have the "soft skills" (such as showing up on time and communicating effectively) that all companies look for.

That combination can help students land jobs such as installing power lines and pipelines, operating rigs at natural-gas extraction sites, and maintaining the automated machinery used in advanced-manufacturing facilities.

Such work can be lucrative, and the pay is rising: STEM jobs in the utilities sector in the region pay a median wage of $62,464 per year, while mining and extraction jobs pay a median wage of $58,290, RAND found. In most of the communities in the 27-county region, the overall median annual wage was between $16,000 and $37,000.

A public-private partnership

The study is the second of five annual reports RAND will produce on the Appalachian Partnership Initiative, a public-private initiative launched by energy company Chevron in 2014 in the regions where new technologies have dramatically increased extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shales. RAND is the independent external evaluator of the initiative.

Along with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and the Benedum Foundation, Chevron is donating $20 million to efforts to better prepare K-12 students and local workers for STEM jobs in the energy-extraction and advanced-manufacturing sectors.

Gonzalez said those parties are investing in a number of approaches to improving K-12 STEM education, both inside and outside the classroom. Among them: supporting "Fab Labs," where students can get hands-on experience with engineering and fabrication projects, and bringing Project Lead the Way's STEM curricula and teacher-training to area schools.

The initiative's hope is to attract further public and private investment, Gonzalez said.

But it remains uncertain how far philanthropic investment can go, especially if it is not aligned with federal education and workforce-development policy, which appears poised for a shift under recently elected President Donald Trump.

Gonzalez pointed to two areas of potential concern: Trump's initial federal budget proposal, which would cut the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program, relied on by many small manufacturing employers; and what appears to be a major shift in federal education policy towards promoting school choice, which many observers believe will have limited impact in rural areas where traditional public schools are often the only available option for students.

"There are still a lot of unknowns with the new administration," Gonzalez said. "There are a lot of ways the federal government can play a role in this." 

Photo: The 27-county region covered by the Appalachian Partnership Initiative. From "Wages, Employment, and STEM Education in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia." (RAND Corp.)


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