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Monday, March 9, 2015

NJ must work to improve STEM skills in urban communities | Opinion

Written by Erin Sweeney

Those of us in New Jersey know that our state is a stronghold for the nation's science technology engineering mathematics (STEM) economy. According to the Research & Development Council of New Jersey, the Garden State is home to an incredible intersection of industry, academia and government entities, yielding "the highest concentration of scientific professionals in the nation." It is no surprise, then, that Gov. Chris Christie is publicly recognizing this by naming March 9-13 STEM Week.

However, New Jersey's important role in STEM may not last. As the council rightly noted, by 2018, New Jersey will need to fill nearly 270,000 STEM jobs. The need is critical in order for us to remain a national STEM leader.

As urban communities like Newark and Jersey City continue to struggle with high unemployment rates, the time is ripe to focus our efforts on helping train, prepare and employ unemployed and underemployed individuals in high-skill, STEM jobs. Preparing for such jobs is not only dependent on learning necessary technical skills, but developing the soft skills and hands-on experience needed for success to obtain and retain high-skilled jobs in competitive markets.

Various workforce development programs throughout the nation strive to build coalitions and partnerships with corporate entities, higher education institutions, community-based organizations, and government agencies in an attempt to fill this gap. In our own program, I have seen young adults who have gone from part-time, low-wage work to permanent high-wage Information Technology employment in a matter of months. I have seen veterans who were struggling with adjusting to civilian life go from feeling hopeless to hopeful, receiving IT positions that leverage both their military experience and tech training. Our program lifts people up, fosters their inert drive and curiosity, and helps set these adult learners in a new direction with higher wages, higher skill, and opportunity for upward mobility. Our program literally changes lives while helping meet the high demand for IT jobs in our community.

I know it is possible for us here in New Jersey to fill the widening skills gap by preparing our veterans, young adults, and other individuals in our urban communities for rewarding careers in STEM. It is up to all of us together to make it happen, make the connections, provide the training, and fill in the skills gap. We need to believe in the power of our young adults who want a chance to enter the tech industry and our veterans who want a chance for a new career.

I challenge all employers, training programs, and community organizations to make STEM job training and preparation a priority to help fill the state's rising demand for high-skill employees while reducing our high unemployment rate.

Join us in our effort to train our state's future IT leaders. Together, we can keep New Jersey a national leader in STEM and help provide life-changing opportunities for our state's unemployed and underemployed individuals.

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