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Future work force won't blossom without investment in STEM

The evidence is overwhelming.

In a world of intense competition with other states and, indeed, other countries for jobs, economic growth depends on innovation through science, technology, engineering and mathematics — increasingly known in business and education circles as the “STEM” disciplines.

In New Jersey, the demand for employees with these skills is particularly acute: two recent reports project that some 269,000 STEM-related positions will be created here by 2018.

A quarter-million-plus high-paying jobs begging to be filled is an enviable problem. Fortunately, in a marked departure from business as usual in American politics, New Jersey is taking important steps to equip our skilled work force to tap this opportunity in the decades to come.

Last fall, voters approved a bond issue that increased the available resources for strategic capital investment in New Jersey's institutions of higher education to $750 million. At the same time, state lawmakers and the Christie administration have worked together in a bipartisan fashion to increase that amount to $1.3 billion by creating a grant opportunity to meet the needs of our residents and the sophisticated industries they are helping to shape and grow.

It is the first time since 1988 that such coordination has taken place for higher education. The result is a capital program designed to make targeted investments in New Jersey's true centers of STEM excellence. Managed properly, it could mark a decisive move away from the crisis mode of recent years, and toward a sound foundation for reaching the long-term goals of our research industries and advanced manufacturing sector.

This capital commitment by the state puts a high priority on addressing STEM education needs at the undergraduate and graduate level. This is where the opportunity for our economy and our students is greatest.

At the New Jersey Institute of Technology, the planning to unlock this opportunity is well advanced. Some $200 million in construction and infrastructure projects on our Newark campus has been proposed to bring its role as the state's science and technology university to new generations of STEM students and researchers.

Doing so will build on a century and a quarter of NJIT's prominence as one of America's most entrepreneurial, innovative and accomplished scientific universities. Our charter and strategic plan both emphasize applied research, commercialization, and collaborative solutions with industries here in New Jersey. Our sights are set on interdisciplinary areas that are central to economic development and quality of life in New Jersey, and directly aligned with six priority industries identified in the state strategic plan, including bio/pharmaceuticals, transportation, finance, advanced manufacturing, health care, and green energy.

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has explicitly called for the "innovation eco-systems" that lead to the commercialization of discovery as a long-term engine of job creation. Strategies that "enable innovation" and "secure the talent pipeline" are essential, as global competitiveness flows from students who are "technologically savvy and STEM education proficient."

Rodney Adkins, senior vice president of IBM's Systems and Technology Group, put it this way: "There is no doubt that to advance our economy and our society we need to create the next great technology innovations, not just consume them. That's why there is such urgency for the U.S. to develop a stronger work force of experts in science, technology, engineering, and math."

Since its foundation in 1881, such real-world innovation has been NJIT's purpose and living legacy. Continuing in this tradition will put New Jersey where it belongs: at the front of the pack, especially compared with the lack of coordination between government and industry nationwide. But make no mistake: the competition is intense and the race is on.

Joel S. Bloom, president
New Jersey Institute of Technology

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