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Backward movement in producing STEM graduates

Anne-Allen_White-Bckgrnd_WEBIdaho’s workforce gets a lot of praise from the new companies that choose the Treasure Valley. Arriving CEOs say Idahoans are hard working, honest and reliable.

For the last half-dozen years, state lawmakers, economic development officials, educators and many business owners have been trying to add “educated in science, technology, engineering and mathematics” to that list. They say a STEM-educated workforce attracts good employers that pay well.

Yet it appears southwestern Idaho has been moving backward on producing degree-holding STEM workers. A new study from Economic Modeling Specialists International, a labor market research company in Moscow, says the number of engineering and information technology degrees awarded declined in southwestern Idaho between 2003 and 2012, despite vigorous efforts in those years to build up existing STEM academic programs, add new ones and attract high school students to enroll in them.

In its study released Aug. 1, EMSI said 255 associate degrees and above were awarded in engineering in the Boise-Nampa metro area in 2003. In 2012, just 252 were awarded. Computer and IT degrees took a larger hit of 12 percent, dropping from 229 in 2003 to 202 in 2012.

It’s not as though post-secondary education itself declined. The number of health-related degrees awarded in the metro area increased by 123 percent, from 522 in 2003 to 1,162 in 2012. Liberal arts, humanities, history and English fared even better, increasing 139 percent, though their numbers started very low and still aren’t anything to cheer about. Only 526 associate degrees or above were awarded in all of those areas together in 2012, EMSI’s data show. EMSI used information from the National Center for Education Statistics.

STEM graduates almost always end up making far more than their peers who chose the liberal arts. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says STEM occupations have an average annual wage of about $80,000. That pay would make a difference in southwestern Idaho, given that the average annual mean wage in Idaho is $38,440, about 13 percent less than the national average of $44,410.

But the news isn’t all bad. The College of Idaho this fall will offer a major in computer science for the first time. Boise State, Idaho’s largest university, is trying to increase the number of STEM teachers by adding a certification to its undergraduate education program. Boise State used a National Science Foundation grant to create a program aimed at drawing more students from all disciplines into STEM coursework. And since 2006, Boise State has added doctoral programs in electrical and computer engineering, materials sciences and engineering, and just this year biomolecular sciences.

And the Boise metro area isn’t doing too poorly in terms of total degree output. In EMSI’s ranking among the nation’s largest 150 metropolitan areas, the Boise area came out 30th in growth in college degrees, ahead of cities such as Denver, Portland, Memphis and New York. The EMSI data shows 3,799 degrees were awarded in 2003 and 6,365 were awarded in 2012, an increase of 67 percent. Of course, the area’s population grew in that period, but by only 30 percent.

That means the Boise area has made strides in educating its residents. With growth at the College of Western Idaho, and the sharp focus on STEM from K-12 and at the college level, maybe the state will start seeing some results from its efforts in STEM. Idaho’s economy depends on it.

Anne Wallace Allen is managing editor of the Idaho Business Review.

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.

2 comments

  1. And as a quick afterthought, I might add that Anne’s article reinforces the notion that education administrators and the business groups with whom they work don’t really care about STEM, they care about “TE” – technology and engineering. The basic premise among the STEM promoters now is that STEM degrees have to be useful in producing some widget, hence the focus on computer science, materials science, and the like.

  2. A previous EMSI study in 2009 showed that the Boise Valley had a glut of STEM graduates in the core fields of Chemistry, Math, Physics, and Biology. A glut meaning, there are no jobs here for people holding those degrees – at least not jobs that those kind of grads want. And with the huge growth in the medical sector here, it’s not surprising to see more people seeking degrees in related fields.