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From the Workforce 2021 Guide

The Science of Economic Development

STEM education is still the rage.

STEM education starts as early as kindergarten.
Photo: Getty Images

by Gary Daughters

In today’s information-based economy, a solid grounding in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) can prepare students for emerging opportunities in an evolving workforce that includes careers in such professions engineering, advanced manufacturing, logistics, cybersecurity, robotics among many others. The demand for STEM graduates continues to outpace their availability.

Building a STEM-educated workforce is an expensive proposition. The National Bureau of Economic Research has found that the costs of offering engineering programs, for example, are more than 100% greater than those of English, history and economics. Nationally, the U.S. Department of Education invested $578 million in Fiscal Year 2020 to support STEM education, but the job is mostly up to the states.

“If we don’t grow our own STEM workforce, we won’t have one,” says Lee Meadows, interim executive director of the Alabama STEM council, established by Gov. Kay Ivey in September 2020. With burgeoning automotive and technology industries, Alabama is expected to generate more than 850,000 STEM-related jobs by 2026.

Other states might follow the lead of New Jersey, which spends $18,235 per student per year — fifth-highest in the country — and whose public school system was ranked second best by U.S. News & World Report. New Jersey also ranked second nationally for 8th grade math scores in 2019, according to a study by the Nation’s Report Card. Two recent initiatives demonstrate how New Jersey continues to be a leader in STEM education.

A $496,963 grant from the National Science Foundation announced in August 2020 will help Rowan University researchers introduce STEM careers to high school students in the rural Delsea, Cumberland and Northern Burlington Counties. Professors from the college are to use virtual reality videos to introduce women and students of color to in-demand STEM careers. The video presentations will feature professionals from underrepresented groups working as survey mapping technicians, petroleum technicians, quality control analysts and environmental engineering technicians.

“These types of careers we are highlighting are often overlooked when we talk about STEM careers,” says Sarah Ferguson, a leader of the project. “They are high need and growing in our region.”

A newly-unveiled initiative in Jersey City is further emblematic of New Jersey’s innovative approach to K-12 learning. In conjunction with the Hudson County Board of Education, Jersey City plans to establish Liberty Science High School on the grounds of SciTech Scity, an emerging innovation campus. The magnet school is to offer STEM education to 400 students across the county, as well access to businesses at the campus, including internship opportunities.

Where are the Best Schools?

It may be no coincidence that two public schools from New Jersey placed first and second in U.S. News & World Report’s 2020 ranking of top STEM high schools. Top-ranked High Technology High School in Lincroft is one of five career academies in Monmouth County based around a specialized career theme. The others are the Academy of Allied Health and Science, Biotechnology High School, Communications High School and the Marine Academy of Science and Technology.

Ranked second, Middlesex County Academy for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Technologies in Edison offers STEM-related focus on careers in mechanical, civil, electronic and computer engineering. Located on the campus of Middlesex County College, the school’s enrollment is 90% minority, with 90% participation in advanced placement course work.

2019 Top States for Math

(National Average: 281)
State Score
Massachusetts 294
New Jersey 292
Minnesota 291
Wisconsin 289
New Hampshire 287
South Dakota 287
Virginia 287
Vermont 287
Wyoming 286
Source: The Nation’s Report Card

BASIS Oro Valley, BASIS Chandler and BASIS Scottsdale represent Arizona in the survey’s Top 10. In all, BASIS Charter Schools, based in Scottdale, placed five schools in U.S. News & World Report’s Top 25. BASIS operates 29 tuition-free schools with more than 20,000 students from kindergarten to grade 12 in Arizona, Louisiana, Texas and Washington, D.C.

Women make up about half the total of the country’s college-educated workfore, but are vastly underrepresented in STEM fields, comprising just 16% of the nation’s engineers. In September 2020, the Intel Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore foundation joined the STEM Next Generation Opportunity Fund and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation to launch the Million Girls Moonshot. The program’s goal is to engage a million school-age girls in the U.S. in STEM learning opportunities over the next five years.

“Every girl deserves access to high-quality education to achieve their dream career, regardless of their ZIP code or family’s socioeconomic status,” said Gabriela Gonzalez, deputy director of the Intel Foundation.

The initiative is to provide grant funding and in-kind resources to Mott-funded afterschool networks in all 50 states to increase hands-on STEM learning. Afterschool networks will be provided with technical assistance, educational resources and mentorship from STEM experts, including Intel employee volunteers.

Leading the Way

Headquartered in Indianapolis, Project Lead the Way (PLTW) is a nonprofit that provides STEM education, curriculum and training to schools, districts and teachers for millions of students across the country, serving kindergartners through grade 12. The organization instills project-based, team-centered and industry-aligned learning.

The group’s mission statement is simple: “We believe all students — beginning at a young age — need access to real-world, applied learning experiences that empower them to gain the skills they need to thrive in college, career and beyond.”

With partners that include Fortune 500 companies, local businesses, economic development organizations, foundations and other nonprofits, PLTW offers a competitive grant program that allows schools to implement its learning modules. Its 100-plus corporate partners include Chevron, Lockheed Martin, Verizon, Cargill, John Deere, General Motors and Toyota.

“Project Lead the Way has the best STEM curriculum for schools in the world,” says Dennis Parker, a workforce development official at Toyota. “We have examined what other countries have to offer, and there is none better within the scope of my experience.”

PLTW provides curriculum along three pathways: engineering, computer science and biomedical science, beginning in kindergarten, where hands-on challenges include designing a robot to deliver supplies to a hospital, constructing a rescue method for a trapped zoo animal and proposing methods to prevent the spread of illnesses. Biomedical problems presented to ninth-through-twelfth graders include designing and developing prosthetic limbs, conducting studies on the benefits of mobile health clinics and creating public service campaigns on topics such as bullying and community health standards.

“It’s almost impossible to put into words how much Project Lead the Way has contributed to who I am and who I want to be,” says Keslie O’Brien, a PLTW Biomedical Science alumna and student at the U.S. Air Force Academy. “Any type of success that I’ve had, I think that all comes from a real strong foundational basis that I gained from Project Lead the Way.”

Gary Daughters
Senior Editor

Gary Daughters

Gary Daughters is a Peabody Award winning journalist who began with Site Selection in 2016. Gary has worked as a writer and producer for CNN covering US politics and international affairs. His work has included lengthy stints in Washington, DC and western Europe. Gary is a 1981 graduate of the University of Georgia, where he majored in Journalism and Mass Communications. He lives in Atlanta with his teenage daughter, and in his spare time plays guitar, teaches golf and mentors young people.


Workforce has been cited in Site Selection Magazine’s annual survey of corporate consultants as the No. 1 factor in site selection decisions for several years in a row. The 2021 Workforce Guide is a special report providing insight into workforce development partnerships and practices across the U.S.

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