One Day Can Change a Life: Workforce Development and STEM Education Critical to Energy Future

In order to ensure the transition to a safe energy future, we must expand STEM and energy education and keep our students engaged in these vitally important fields.
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For decades, many believed that scarcity of energy resources would one day require dramatic lifestyle changes or economic hardship. Now, we daily read headlines reporting the abundance of U.S. energy resources: whether it's limitless amounts of wind and solar power or a century's worth of natural gas, the school of thought that once predicted we'd run out of energy resources by the 1990s was dead wrong. What we may not have seen coming was a scarcity in an educated energy workforce.

The U.S. energy and manufacturing sectors face massive shortages in qualified employees. Due to a growing skills gap, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers predicts that by 2015 the number of unfilled jobs in the manufacturing sector could grow to 3 million, up from 600,000 unfilled openings today. With an unemployment level just below eight percent, how do we have so many unfilled positions?

Much of the answer lies in the shortcomings of our education and workforce training systems. Increasingly young people straight out of high school and college are finding themselves under-qualified for many jobs and consequently suffering from unemployment rates above 15 percent. Even worse, one in four students is failing to even graduate high school.

One of the most significant problems is insufficient math and science education at all levels. Education in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is necessary for myriad professions but is particularly critical in the energy and manufacturing sectors. In addition to augmenting the amount of math and science teachers in U.S. classrooms, as President Obama has suggested, teachers and parents must better cultivate an interest and appreciation for math and sciences in our students at a young age.

For some students, sparking an interest in math and science can come courtesy of a creative teacher or re-runs of Bill Nye the Science Guy. For students in the Houston-area, Consumer Energy Alliance hopes to energize excitement in the STEM fields through our Energy Day Festival, where students participate in hands-on demonstrations with a variety of energy companies and research institutions. Sometimes all it takes is one class, one science fair or one mentor to change the trajectory of a student's career.

Second, educators, parents, companies and government should work proactively to demystify vocational training and employment straight out of high school. It's important that we educate students that foregoing traditional four-year college to go straight into the workforce does not mean they completely sacrifice the opportunity to go to college. On-the-job training combined with continuing education at a community college or a two- or four-year university allows students graduating high school to begin pursuing a career in specialized fields while furthering their education. In fact, oftentimes qualified workers can find tuition assistance or free classes from their employers or local union. Furthermore, companies, trade associations and labor groups increasingly collaborate with local education institutions to ensure targeted training, ultimately increasing the efficiency of an employee's time in the classroom.

Finally, we should all encourage both male and female students to explore opportunities in the energy and manufacturing sectors. According to the American Society of Engineering, the percentage of engineering degrees conferred to females is a paltry 17 percent, even though women are earning bachelor degrees at parity with their male peers. As such, only 13 percent of engineering technicians and 6.7 percent of mechanical engineers are female. Similar stats abound for other professions in the energy sector.

Make no mistake: These professions are not the low-skill, low-pay positions of yesteryear. Energy and manufacturing in the 21st century requires continuous training and education to keep workers on pace with high-tech innovations. For workers, these positions generally offer higher salaries, more generous benefits, and greater job security than the average U.S. worker. For companies, available, dependable, and skilled labor allows them to operate in the United States and grow communities here at home.

As we look into the future, it's clear that solving the country's energy problems will require the continued expansion of a specialized workforce in the United States. Increasing numbers of engineers, scientists, geologists, electricians, ecologists, technicians and climatologists will be needed to advance environmentally and economically friendly solutions that boost domestic energy production, diversify our energy supply and ensure efficient use of resources in order to meet future energy demand. In order to ensure the transition to a safe energy future, we must expand STEM and energy education and keep our students engaged in these vitally important fields.

David Holt is the President of the Consumer Energy Alliance. The Consumer Energy Alliance is pleased to sponsor Energy Day 2012; find out more by visiting the Energy Day Festival website.

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