Commentary: Training our Workforce to Meet Demand
Business and community leaders in Seattle and the Puget Sound region have built a strong foundation for a diverse economy, but developing a vibrant economic base is not enough. Making it sustainable is critical. In order to maintain the regional competitive advantage we have built, we must deepen our local talent pool to support the businesses that create new, innovative jobs.
An increasing number of those jobs require advanced education and training in critical sectors. In fact, Washington needs to add 9,000 graduate degrees per year in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields through 2019 to keep up with employer demand. Seattle, like Boston and San Jose, has a bachelor’s degree attainment rate of nearly 25 percent. However, when comparing graduate degree attainment, Seattle has a rate that is only two-thirds of those cities. It would take more than 100,000 graduate degrees to reach the per capita rate of Boston and San Jose.
Further highlighting our needs in higher education, Seattle ranks comparatively low when it comes to availability of part-time graduate degree programs that can support the schedules and goals of our region’s working professionals. Per capita, Seattle’s supply of part-time graduate degrees is less than half of cities with similarly high attainment levels of bachelor’s degrees.
Seeing this educational gap, Northeastern University, a global, experiential, nonprofit research university based in Boston, is opening a graduate campus in Seattle’s burgeoning South Lake Union neighborhood in January 2013. Northeastern has developed 15 professional graduate degrees tailored to Seattle’s needs in science, engineering, technology, health care, business, education and nonprofit.
Each degree is specifically designed to meet the talent demands of our local innovation economy. A master’s degree in information assurance, for example, is regionally in high demand and also tailored to some of Seattle’s top-tier IT companies and their workforce needs.
We have worked closely with local business leaders for the past year—through more than 250 meetings—to identify the areas of graduate education needed to propel our economy forward and to retain companies known for innovation, companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, Seattle BioMed and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
We’re also responding to the need for more accessible graduate degree programs through a hybrid delivery system that combines classes at the South Lake Union campus and online course work. This hybrid approach is designed to suit Seattle’s high-tech culture, combining mobile and wired education with the benefits of face-to-face faculty/peer interaction and teamwork. It provides high-caliber learning with a level of flexibility that allows both busy professionals and stay-at-home parents to get the education they need to take the next step in their careers.
We are inviting companies to get directly involved through partnerships that enable them to help design curricula and customize programs in a way that produces the skilled workforce those firms need to prosper and compete globally.
But purely educational partnerships can only be part of the solution to the challenges faced by our region. We need to develop a strategic approach to broader partnerships involving business and higher education. One possible model for this is the collaboration between the Northeastern Integrated Initiative in Global Health, driven by faculty in Boston, and Seattle BioMed, to develop tailored graduate courses for Seattle and explore joint research initiatives.
Institutions of higher education should be committed to collaborative relationships with area employers who are driving the local economy, thereby creating a truly educated, highly skilled and competitive workforce that aligns talent with industry needs. It’s innovation at work.
Tayloe Washburn is the graduate campus CEO and dean of Northeastern University–Seattle. He has held leadership roles in education throughout his career. He was recently named Economic Development Champion of the Year by enterpriseSeattle, a regional economic development council.