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.

Editor's Note: Rule Weary in Seattle

Editor's Note: Rule Weary in Seattle

City regulations may be well meaning, but small businesses are feeling put upon.
David Lee founded FareStart in Seattle to train chefs because he believed the homeless would benefit from “the dignity of preparing food as a vocation.” He launched Field Roast, a producer of vegan “meats,” because he considers the mass industrialization of animals as “a blight on our culture.” He has nurtured a caring culture at his SoDo production facility, remodeling the space so production workers have plenty of space and natural light.
So when Seattle passed a paid-sick-leave law mandating a set number of paid days for sick leave, Lee accepted it. But the results have been disappointing.
“For the first time,” he says, “I have employees lying to me. A medical appointment becomes a paid day off.”
The city’s $15 minimum-wage mandate was another challenge.
“It hurts businesses like ours that compete on a national level against companies in places like Arkansas that pay $7 [an hour],” says Lee. But, wanting to do the right thing, this summer Lee boosted the wages of his employees to $15 an hour four years before he was required to do so under the law.
Seattle can be proud that its $15 minimum-wage law has led the way in driving up wages across the country. And because it is being implemented over seven years and at a time when the local economy is strong, there have been relatively few negative impacts (page 20). Similarly, while there may be widespread abuse of sick leave, there is evidence that the ability of workers to take the time off helps prevent the spread of the flu and other harmful viruses.
But each new layer of regulation is an added burden on business. Now the city is adding yet more regulations — one set that will require businesses to set schedules for employees two weeks in advance and yet another that requires landlords to choose tenants in the order applications are submitted. What’s next? 
A requirement that companies hire employees in the order that they applied?
While each regulation may have some logic to it, the cumulative effect is to make it harder for businesses to fulfill their important role as job creators. The rules can be particularly hard on small businesses without the resources to hire staff to deal with the complications regulations create.
Regulations also create bureaucracy. The Seattle Times reported that to enforce a law requiring landlords to select tenants in the order in which they replied, the city would hire two employees at a cost of $200,000 and launch sting operations. Really?
Meanwhile, the city isn’t enforcing basic sanitation laws to prevent the homeless from leaving excrement on city sidewalks. The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience came close to shutting down because an illegal encampment just a block away included “tents serving as drug galleries” that made it unsafe for the museum’s employees and visitors. The problem contributed to the shutting down of the nearby House of Hong restaurant and resulted in negative reviews for the museum on websites like Trip Advisor during the important summer tourist season.
It will be interesting to see if the city’s new director of homelessness, appointed in August at an annual salary of $137,500, can address this expanding problem.
“Clearly, what is happening is that government is forcing business to take on the social imperative,” Lee says.
The altruistic entrepreneur accepts that, up to a point. But the city needs to spend more time attending to basic services. And it has to stop pretending it can solve the world’s problems on the backs of small businesses.
Executive Editor