More than 60 science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) educators and industry professionals gathered for a forum at Alfred State recently to explore the economic future of western New York, closing the skills gap, and increasing interest in STEM fields.
Titled, “The Future Workforce Forum: Closing the Middle Skills Gap, the forum was organized by WNY STEM Hub in collaboration with Alfred State, WNY STEM Satellite Center at St. Bonaventure University, and the Greater Southern Tier STEM Hub. It was part of a series of regional forums across New York State funded by a national STEMx Challenge Grant administered through the State University of New York on behalf of the Empire State STEM Learning Network.
Dr. Skip Sullivan, president of Alfred State, provided the welcoming remarks for the forum, and noted that the college places great emphasis on preparing students for STEM careers.
“We think there is a great value for us, for our country, for our state, and for our region to promote careers in STEM fields,” he said.
Dr. Michelle Kavanaugh, president of WNY STEM Hub, served as the facilitator of the forum, which included speaker remarks, followed by a panel discussion, and finally a participatory World Café-format discussion.
“Today, we are going to put our minds together and envision our local workforce for the future, and how we might shape that together,” Kavanaugh told attendees.
Many speakers agreed that filling STEM job openings with qualified, high-skilled workers is key to maintaining a strong economy in western New York. When asked to identify which STEM jobs are in highest demand, John Slenker, market analyst, for the New York State Department of Labor, responded, “All of them.”
“Literally all STEM occupations make your life better,” he pointed out, “whether it is entertainment, transportation, medicine, etc.”
Stephen Tucker, president and CEO of the WNY Workforce Training Center, offered a four-pillared approach to closing the middle skills STEM gap, which included awareness, education and preparation, access and support, and mentoring.
“We have to prepare (students) to be problem-solvers and critical thinkers so that they can bring those (valuable STEM) skills to their employers,” he said.
Dr. Craig Clark, vice president for Economic Development at Alfred State, noted the college’s success in connecting students to both STEM-related and non-STEM-related jobs, as evident by its 99 percent employment and continuing education rate. He also mentioned Alfred State students receive plenty of valuable real-world, hands-on learning experiences that provide them with the skills and knowledge they need on the job.
“Our programs are geared toward getting your hands dirty on lab equipment for applied projects the first semester,” he said.
Clark added that real-world experience, exposing high school students to a college campus environment, holding career days and career fairs, and making connections within the industries are some other ways in which interest in STEM will increase and the economy of western New York will benefit as a result.