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By Dave Gardner

A line-up that included employment specialists, employers and educators analyzed the need to prepare America’s youth for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) during a March 20 summit conference hosted by the Northeast Pennsylvania Manufacturers and Employers Association.

Participants learned that an abundance of STEM-related job openings — including those in the natural-gas industry — are not being filled due lack of workers with adequate STEM skills.

Special guests at the event included Mike Butler, executive director with the Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) Mid-Atlantic and William desRosiers, external affairs coordinator with Cabot Oil & Gas. The STEM effort is a logical match for Cabot, which has actively promoted STEM education with financial support to academic programs related to the gas industry.

In some ways, the Hazleton roundtable was also a Drilling 101 educational seminar. Participants were exposed to the energy-generation industry in general, including facets of the oil, solar and nuclear-energy sectors along with the liquefaction of natural gas. “We discussed associated career opportunities, such as the promotion of petrochemical products and opportunities in the plastic industry,” says desRosiers.

STEM employment offers solid opportunities. Jobs in the American science and engineering workforce expanded from more than 180,000 in 1950 to 5.4 million in 2009, representing employment growth almost five times that of America’s total adult workforce.

CEA, a national trade organization active in 38 states, says it serves as a voice for the nation’s energy consumers by offering “sound and unbiased information on energy issues.” CEA’s affiliates represent many sectors, such as the energy industry, academia, small businesses, conservation groups, travel-related businesses, trucking, farmers, and the steel industry.

CEA’s Butler explains that his organization toils to combat energy-related misinformation and strives to create sensible energy policies that promote gas-extraction from the Marcellus Shale, where there is a serious need for hands-on, STEM-educated workers. “Our promotion of STEM education includes huge numbers of science-based trade jobs throughout the gas industry,” says Butler. “Many of these require a two-year program, instead of a four-year degree.”

According to Butler, there are no easy answers as to why America has a shortage of STEM-educated workers. He speculates that nation, as a whole , has done a poor job of identifying and developing students for STEM. Also, STEM subjects (math and science) are perceived as “more difficult” than many others. Another problem is that American society has also come to view the fossil fuel and chemical industries in a somewhat negative light. Butler says the public has been greatly misinformed about these matters. “Kids are selecting different pathways for careers away from science and the trades,” says Butler. “This could be due to a perception that science kids are ‘geeks.’ Another problem is that many girls seem to lose interest in science during middle school.”

Changing NEPA

Questions raised by the roundtable participants in Hazleton included queries about how NEPA can create a change in students to favor STEM. The group concluded that kids must see the job-related rewards, even when considering trade and apprentice career paths or other areas of applied science.

Hands-on exposure was also deemed vital. A student must see, feel and touch the physical portions of a career to be attracted and understand the various interrelations between education and jobs.

“This is true even if a student is considering a two-year school,” says desRosiers.

Butler adds that his organization is planning to expand its efforts to train workers for the natural has business. “We are planning a similar event at Lackawanna College, and will continue our association with Junior Achievement to spread the word about STEM jobs,” adds Butler. “We are also willing to do similar programs at high schools where parents and teachers can attend.”

Regional impact

Darlene Robbins, president of the Manufacturers and Employers Association, explains that the March 20 conference was the second time she has been involved with the CEA.

According to Robbins, the opportunities presented at the conference are particularly applicable to NEPA. She has noted how large numbers of college students in NEPA quit school after one year when they could have undoubtedly finished a two-year curriculum tied in with the gas business.

“Many of our NEPA students are told over and over that only four-year college programs are glamorous,” says Robbins. “They don’t understand careers involving STEM and the skilled trades.”

She also notes that when, a generation ago, manufacturing withered and thousands of good-paying jobs were lost, it left a bitter taste in the mouths of many residents. This may be a prime reason why today’s students are not tying STEM-related manufacturing and energy with great jobs and valuable careers. “We have to start the education earlier, and teach our students that the face of manufacturing has changed,” she says.