Pathways to Continued Prosperity – Expand the STEM Pipeline

By PK Agarwal

The 2016 Silicon Valley Competitiveness and Innovation Project reports that the Silicon Valley Region’s foundations of prosperity are showing some signs of stress. The report compares key data for innovation regions in the U.S. including the New York City metro area, Boston, Southern California, Seattle and Austin, as well as a select number of global areas.

The troubling indicators cited for Silicon Valley were an outflow of talent to other parts of the U.S., increased labor costs and slower growth in STEM degrees. The success of our Region is understandably tied to the availability of high quality STEM talent.   The slowdown of growth in STEM degrees is a particularly alarming indicator, as this is a harbinger of the increasing talent gap.  During the 2013-2014 period, growth in STEM degrees was the lowest in Silicon Valley, 4.8% compared to 11.4% in Seattle, 11.2% in New York and 9.6% in Boston. At the same time, our share of foreign born workers was the highest of any of the report’s identified innovation regions. This appears to indicate that we are starting to fall behind in the race for the STEM talent.  This indicator is all the more troubling considering that a Whitehouse report points out that the IT demand-supply gap is expected to continue to grow at least through 2020.

The STEM pipeline issues go a lot deeper than at the college level.  Take a look at the eighth grade math proficiency. In 2014, slightly less than half (49%) of students met or exceeded the state standards for math, based on the Common Core education standards. The “diversity challenge” in the STEM pipeline is illustrated by the fact only 20% of African American students and 21% of Latino students met these standards.  Eighth grade math proficiency is a crucial indicator of college preparedness and subsequent professional STEM pipeline.

One of the innovative answers to the region’s STEM shortage and diversity challenge is to re-skill non-STEM professionals into STEM fields.  A number of educational institutions are coming up with programs to open the STEM pipeline to people who have already obtained non-STEM college education. We, at Northeastern University- Silicon Valley, are one of those innovators.  Our ALIGN program addresses the talent issue by providing non-STEM undergrad degree holders a pathway to a Master’s degree in Computer Science or Cybersecurity.   It is well understood that people with a variety of multi-disciplinary skills bring a unique perspective to the workplace.  Accordingly these ALIGN students, with a wide range of academic and cultural backgrounds, bring new vistas to the STEM disciplines.  Plus, they tend to excel in soft skills, which differentiates them in the workplace.   Finally, programs such as ALIGN provide a tool to deal with the diversity issue in Silicon Valley.

The availability of skilled workforce is the critical asset that will keep Silicon Valley growing and thriving.   Industry and academia need to partner and innovate to solve the pipeline issue in the short-term as well as long-term.

P.K. Agarwal is Regional Dean and CEO of Northeastern University-Silicon Valley and former CTO for California under Governor Schwarzenegger.