Many knowledge-based jobs go blue collar

Idaho StatesmanJune 10, 2013 

When you think of jobs that require mastery of science or math, chances are you don't think of auto mechanics or construction.

But a new study suggests you should think again. The study being released Monday shows both fields are among the top 10 STEM - science, technology, engineering and math - occupations in the Treasure Valley. And all three generally don't require a bachelor's degree.

The study found that nearly a third of all jobs requiring extensive STEM knowledge are filled by craft professionals or other blue-collar workers. And about half of all STEM jobs - in the Treasure Valley as well as nationwide - require a two-year associate's degree or less.

"University attendance is not the only path to a STEM career," said the report's author, Jonathan Rothwell, associate fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank. "While highly educated STEM professionals are a vital part of the economy, many less educated and often blue collar STEM workers contribute to economic growth and innovation in a variety of ways."

"Job growth, employment rates, patenting, incomes and exports are all higher in STEM-oriented economies."

At the College of Western Idaho, the 4-year-old community college in Nampa, students can feed the Valley's technical-knowledge economy through an array of associate degrees and certificates in automotive technology, drafting, health technology and other fields on Brookings' list of top 10 STEM occupations in the Boise-Nampa area.

"There's a lot more of that core knowledge within these (professional-technical) areas than people expect," CWI Communications Director Jennifer Couch said.

Take engine repair. "It's amazing how much technology is in there now," both in mechanical systems and the diagnostic equipment used to fix them, Couch said. "We have a lot of people say, 'Whoa, I have to take a math class for this?' But the answer is definitely yes."

JOBS AND WAGES

The College of Western Idaho's professional-technical programs reported 88 percent positive job placements in 2011. Couch said demand for the programs and their graduates remains strong. "We need people to make sure the stuff we're using works," she said.

STEM training pays off with improved earnings opportunities, the Brookings study found. In jobs requiring an associate's degree or less, STEM-trained workers earned about 36 percent more than their counterparts in other fields. STEM jobs requiring a bachelor's degree or more bring in about 23 percent more than jobs requiring a two-year degree or less.

Idaho Department of Commerce Director Jeff Sayer echoed the study's emphasis on skills training.

"Based on our conversations with existing Idaho companies and those that are considering the state for future expansion, it is clear that there is a high demand for a highly skilled workforce - both in the areas covered by more traditional degrees ... but also in fields that require more advanced technical training," Sayer said in an email. "It is critically important that industry continues to have a significant seat at the table to ensure that Idaho's colleges and universities are equipping students with the skill sets they demand and anticipating future workforce needs across a variety of existing and emerging industry clusters."

Idaho teachers are eager to foster student success in STEM fields, said Melissa McGrath, spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Education. Annual STEM workshops for teachers are planned for later this month across the state. All 500 spaces were snapped up by teachers at all grade levels soon after the dates were announced in March, she said.

The Brookings study analyzed data from the Department of Labor, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the American Community Survey and the Strumsky Patents Database.

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