Baltimore area has a high share of STEM job openings

The Baltimore area has an outsized share of job openings in fields that make heavy use of science, technology, engineering or math skills, occupations that pay more and are harder for employers to fill, according to a new analysis.

The Brookings Institution study, to be released today, found that the Baltimore region had the eighth-highest percentage of job openings in "STEM" fields among large metro areas — on par with high-tech Seattle and Boston.

In much of the country, Brookings said, STEM jobs remain posted on company websites for longer than other listings, suggesting that it takes more time to get enough qualified applicants. STEM jobs in the Baltimore area typically stayed up for 22 days, more than double the amount of time for other jobs and one of the highest in the country.

"It's a problem most places … but the severity is somewhat worse in Baltimore," said Jonathan Rothwell, a study author and associate fellow of Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program.

The study is the latest in a long debate about worker shortages in STEM fields. On one side are employers and researchers who say there aren't enough trained people, hurting companies and American innovation alike. On the other are researchers who say there's actually an oversupply.

An Economic Policy Institute study last year said 50 percent more students graduate each year from U.S. colleges with computer science, information science and engineering degrees than are hired into those fields. Surveys of computer science graduates show that many of the rest end up in other fields.

Meanwhile, temporary foreign workers — brought in through visa programs intended to deal with labor shortages — make up an increasing number of the country's IT workers, dampening wage growth, according to the institute.

The new Brookings study doesn't take a position on visa programs. Instead, it suggests improving education and retraining programs to give more Americans the ability to land STEM jobs.

They're good occupations to enter, according to Brookings. The average market value of the skills employers wanted for STEM openings in the Baltimore area in early 2013 — the period Brookings analyzed — worked out to about $65,000 a year, nearly $10,000 more than for the non-STEM jobs.

"As it stands now, large segments of our population don't have an opportunity to even participate in the STEM economy," Rothwell said.

Brookings takes a broad view of what those jobs are — not just occupations such as computer engineering, but also accounting, nursing, carpentry and other fields that need STEM knowledge for daily work.

Those jobs accounted for 47 percent of the openings advertised on employer websites in the Baltimore area in early 2013.

That's an eye-popping figure, but Rothwell cautioned that employers don't put all openings on their own sites. Some non-STEM jobs, particularly high-turnover positions at restaurants and retailers, are less likely to show up online, he said.

Still, the Baltimore area clearly has a lot of STEM jobs, he said. They're found at employers as varied as Johns Hopkins Hospital and the National Security Agency.

The NSA is one of several organizations at Fort Meade, in Anne Arundel County, with a cyber focus. So the nonprofit group that advocates for the installation, the Fort Meade Alliance, takes an active interest in the worker pool.

Deon W. Viergutz, president of the alliance, said there's more demand for cybersecurity employees than supply, driven in part by increasing needs beyond the federal government and its contractors. But sometimes the shortage isn't about training — it's about experience.

"You have graduates coming out of two-year degree programs where they have no experience, and being able to place them in cybersecurity jobs — that's part of the challenge," he said. "Hands-on experience is one of those gaps that's a difficult thing to solve."

A cyber program set to launch this fall is aimed at this gap. Organizers, including the Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corp. and Hunt Valley-based Dunbar Cybersecurity, plan to give people with some tech background fairly brief training followed by apprenticeships lasting perhaps nine months to a year.

More than 20 firms have signed on to offer apprenticeship positions, said Chris Ensey, Dunbar Cybersecurity's chief operating officer.

The goal is for those jobs to become permanent — or at least get people out of the no-experience Catch-22 so they can land a job elsewhere. Meanwhile, cyber employers get a bigger pool of qualified candidates.

"We want to make this as rewarding as possible for both sides," Ensey said.

The program is part of the state's fledgling EARN Maryland effort, which funds training offered by industry-led groups. A substantial chunk of the programs funded in June are STEM-related, in fields such as IT, health care and biotechnology.

"We're just pleased that so many of the partnerships we funded have this commonality and they're beginning to work together," said Elisabeth Sachs, EARN Maryland's program director.

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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