Commentary: science, tech work a boon for Mainers

Ben Gilman and Rachel Kerestes |

Portland Press Herald

By refocusing resources, creating new learning paths and integrating educational systems with private-sector partners, Maine can produce a skilled, resilient STEM workforce.

If there has been a silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the heightened attention paid to science. At the same time, we are reminded of the financial burdens faced by so many who lost jobs and income. If we have learned anything from the events of 2020, it’s that Maine’s workforce must be prepared for the unexpected and adapt when it happens.

Our organizations recently collaborated on a webinar series focused on Maine’s workforce and its readiness for careers in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine-related fields – occupations that pay higher wages and are resilient in tough times. The four-part series included distinguished leaders from government, academia and business – professionals who understand the issues facing employees and employers and are in positions to create innovative programs to meet those challenges.

As Heather Johnson, Maine’s economic and community development commissioner, points out, STEM-sector employment was growing 8 percent annually and non-STEM jobs by just 3 percent before the pandemic. Moreover, the life sciences sector, which includes professions needed for the development, production and distribution of medicines, vaccines and related supplies, has grown faster in Maine than anywhere in the U.S. over the past five years. These STEM positions generate higher incomes – $87,000 a year on average, while non-STEM workers earn $38,000, which creates obvious benefits for local economies.

The more than one dozen professionals who participated in the series agree that while Maine is well-positioned to produce the next generation of STEM workers, several areas need greater focus and emphasis.

• First, Maine students should be better equipped to pursue STEM work with talent developed at the earliest stages of learning. Too often, according to longtime engineer Walter Rawle, students entering college haven’t received sufficient instruction in calculus, linear algebra and probability and statistics to succeed in post-secondary engineering majors.

In Lewiston, a program that introduces K-12 students to coding is showing great promise by engaging students early, increasing their confidence with technology and preparing them for jobs of the future. The program should serve as a model for other school pathways.

Maine has the benefit of a first-rate university system that can turn out Ph.D. scientists, as Commissioner Johnson notes, though the state must do more to develop enough lab technicians to support them. Lab techs are equally in demand among private sector employers.

• Second, there must be greater investment in research and development from public and private sources. As University of Maine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy points out, Maine must continue to support, invest and grow its funding for research and development, which is critical for the future of STEM jobs in Maine. Further, we must encourage Maine’s congressional delegation to continue to champion increased support for federal R&D and include science and engineering as part of the essential infrastructure our nation needs to construct.

Greater emphasis on public-private partnerships can also help increase R&D investments. Graduate students in biomedical sciences and engineering at UMaine are working with a variety of private partners such as The Jackson Laboratory, Maine Medical Center Research Institute and others, putting them on paths to be leaders in Maine’s future workforce.

UMaine’s recently announced plans for a new College of Engineering, Computing, and Information Science, President Ferrini-Mundy believes, will also increase confidence that local campuses are well equipped to conduct important research. The college is supported by public and private investments, including more than $240 million in scholarships provided by the Harold Alfond Foundation. Such private involvement will help expand STEM learning programs throughout the university system statewide.

• Third, Maine’s heritage industries – forestry, fishing and farming – which include wide knowledge and talent bases – are surely able to innovate and transition when necessary. Forestry is about more than paper making, with its products included in the production of medical devices and floating offshore wind turbines, for example.

Work in STEM fields is critical to Maine’s economic stability, supporting 58 percent of jobs, 61 percent of GDP and $4.7 billion in tax revenues as recently as 2017, according to Science is US. By refocusing resources, creating new learning paths and integrating educational systems with private-sector partners, Maine can produce a highly skilled STEM workforce well suited for the unexpected – and the unimaginable – for decades to come.

Editor’s Note: This Special to the Press Herald was authored by Ben Gilman and Rachel Kerestes and was published in the Portland Press Herald on March 3, 2021. A link to the published article can be found here. Ben Gilman is president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce Education Foundation, and Rachel Kerestes is executive director of Science is US, a Washington, D.C.-based initiative.

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