The Role of Innovative Learning in Workforce Development

Mar 23, 2016 Economy, Education, People & Community

The Power of 32 region has developed — and earned — a reputation for being a leader in innovative learning. There have been several successful programs launched that prepare todays' students to succeed in the future. And that's good, because according to a study initiated by the Carnegie Science Center, business leaders in the tristate region are counting on excellent innovative learning such as STEM education to develop the next generation of collaborative problem-solvers as a means of closing the large regional workforce gap of skilled workers.

According to the study, Work To Do: The Role of STEM Education in Improving the Tri-State Region's Workforce, local experts in workforce development have documented a critical shortage of workers to fill numerous career paths that are vital to the regional economy, particularly in the energy and advanced manufacturing industries. Employers are experiencing great difficulty in finding local candidates with the requisite technical and technology-related skills to fill vacant positions. This problem can be called a "STEM gap" because many candidates who reside in the region lack the science, technology, engineering and math skills required for these jobs.

According to Mary Murrin, Social Investment Team Lead, Appalachian/Michigan Strategic Business Unit for Chevron, and co-chair of the Remake Learning Council, there is a need to converge STEM learning with stackable workforce training credentials to build multiple pathways to jobs and create opportunities for ongoing advancement.

She says that the economic impact of intentionally connecting K12 STEM learning and workforce development is an opportunity to build a larger and better qualified workforce, higher incomes, and a growing number of workers encouraged to stay in the region.

"There is a new definition and respect for opportunities to learn advanced technical skills," says Murrin. "This is particularly compelling and relevant in this region because we were an industrial, manufacturing-based region that has been successful in reinventing ourselves as a more technology-based economy."

"We now understand that there are new opportunities in the advanced manufacturing industries," she continues. "And there is real value in rolling up your sleeves and making something with your hands, or taking an idea that is theoretical or software-based, and making it tangible and accessible."

These opportunities need to cross borders in the region. Murrin points out that advanced skills must be expanded and accessible in rural communities that have been left behind by some of the region's technology advancement. This is important because a key finding of the Work To Do study, is that rural areas represent one of the greatest, yet underexploited, opportunities for STEM education to impact workforce development.

A key initiative to improve STEM education and further develop a highly-skilled regional workforce in 27 counties across southwestern Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia and eastern Ohio is the Appalachia Partnership Initiative (API), a $20 million social investment program created by Chevron in collaboration with local partners — the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and monitoring and evaluation partner RAND Corporation — to address education and workforce development needs. The program aims to improve education and technical training to develop a skilled workforce that can meet the needs of the advanced manufacturing industries through the development of new programs and expansion of existing work.

The API has supported and funded a number of initiatives including Project Lead the Way, ShaleNet, middle school interactive Energy Labs, Fab Lab maker spaces, STEM and maker programming at the Carnegie Science Center and the Pittsburgh Children's Museum, and more.

This is a long-term process, says Murrin, but the API and Remake Learning Council are "committed to taking many of the innovative, effective learning programs from Allegheny County into rural communities in the tri-state region. We are focused on making manufacturing and business partners aware of the programs and communicating a clear pathway between these learning opportunities and hiring organizations. This process should also help to build greater parent and student awareness of the connection between STEM learning in school and good, family-sustaining jobs in these student's futures."

The Power of 32 region is a leader in innovative learning —but there is still work to do.