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STEM in New Jersey: Strengthen a Strength

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Engineer works on a smart wall system.
Engineer works on a smart wall system. - (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Marc Barnes)

By 2018, New Jersey needs to fill over 269,000 jobs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). To give a sense of the size of this undertaking, this is the equivalent of the entire population of Jersey City, plus another 15,000 people.

In many ways, this should not be a challenge. New Jersey is known as the "medicine chest of the world." It houses seventeen of the world's top twenty biopharmaceutical companies. It holds the nation's highest concentration of scientific professionals. It is the state where transformative inventions such as streptomycin, the transistor and phonograph were invented.

But despite these favorable conditions, New Jersey continues to be a national leader in exporting people. In 2008, New Jersey had a net loss of 27,343 college students, which was the largest outflow of any state. In comparison, the next closest state was Texas with a net loss of 11,291 students. Migration data paint a similarly troubling picture with New Jersey having the highest percentage of people leaving for another state. In the most recent census, the state had a net loss of 70,000 people in a single year. With these numbers in mind, filling 269,000 STEM jobs is not something New Jersey should leave up to chance, so we need a plan.

The Research & Development Council of New Jersey, of which I am president, has one. The Council's plan to help address this jobs challenge is through the Governor's STEM Scholars, a unique public-private program developed in partnership with the Governor's Office, New Jersey Department of Education, and Secretary of Higher Education. The program seeks to cultivate a diverse group of 50 of the best and brightest student leaders from across the state and expose them to all that New Jersey has to offer in STEM. A mentorship program, student participants will not only be encouraged to foster their own passion for STEM, but will be trained to be STEM ambassadors, advocating to classmates to pursue a STEM education and career in New Jersey.

Our goal is both to help educate students about the opportunities within the state, as well as to encourage New Jersey's economic development. At the heart of our program is four conferences that aim to mentor, educate, and inspire our scholars, in grades 10-20, by introducing them to accomplished STEM professionals and cutting edge research done in the state. The scholars will also make trips into the field where they will be exposed to labs demonstrating things like 3D printing, nanotechnology, and more. Our expectation is that engaging our state's top student STEM leaders with their professional peers will open up mutually beneficial doors of research, opportunity, and professional development.
In addition, this program can help promote New Jersey's continuing economic vitality. Research shows STEM economies perform much more strongly than non-STEM economies in leading economic indicators: job growth, employment rates, patenting, wages, and exports. Further, STEM jobs not only pay higher wages than the average job, but they are available both to the professional class that develops groundbreaking research and high-skilled, blue collar workers who are crucial to implementation.

The Council knows that New Jersey's history of innovation and its plethora of STEM resources will greatly contribute to the success of this plan. Unlike other states, New Jersey doesn't need to set out to create a "research triangle" or a Silicon Valley -- we already have all that these areas offer and more. With one of the country's most highly educated workforces and the nation's hub for biotech, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices, New Jersey can easily position itself to continue its status as a global STEM powerhouse.

In terms of education, New Jersey students are especially well-prepared to fill jobs in the STEM economy. New Jersey students exceed the national average in science and math, as well as in graduating one of the highest percentages of high school students in the nation. Where there are achievement gaps, New Jersey and this program have the resources to enable everyone to be well-represented in STEM fields.

If New Jersey is to reach its goal of filling 269,000 STEM jobs by 2018, it does not need to fundamentally change. Instead, it can draw upon its people and its institutions to strengthen a strength.

The Governor's STEM Scholars program does that by providing STEM opportunities to students who might otherwise have never known they existed and connecting New Jersey's innovators to the state's best and brightest. New Jerseyans don't need to look elsewhere to find opportunity. With the Governor's STEM Scholars program, they can find that the greatest resource is the one that is right at home.

Anthony S. Cicatiello is the president of the Research & Development Council of New Jersey, a half-century-old organization made up of member research organizations from industry, academia, and government. For more on the Council and the Governor's STEM Scholars Program, visit www.rdnj.org.

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