Jobs requiring math, technology skills hard to find, harder to fill in Fresno area

The Fresno BeeJune 30, 2014 

In response to the Fresno area's low ranking on a list of U.S. places with jobs requiring skills in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM), Jonathan Rothwell, a researcher with Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program, says, "It is extremely valuable to allow students to get industry-relevant skills while they're in high school."

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Occupations that require substantial skills in science, technology, engineering or mathematics -- known as STEM occupations -- are fewer and farther between in Fresno than in nearly every other large U.S. city.

And not only are those STEM jobs that do exist here harder to fill, but the skills they require tend to be valued lower in the Fresno market than 90% of other large metropolitan areas of the nation.

A report due to be released Tuesday by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, evaluated the country's 100 largest metropolitan areas to analyze the prevalence of STEM jobs in each market. The analysis was based on studying the number of job openings advertised on company websites, and how long those ads remained posted before the jobs were filled.

Nationally, the gap between available STEM jobs and the number of people qualified to fill them comes down to issues of supply and demand, said Jonathan Rothwell, a researcher with Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program.

"The difficulty of filling vacant positions increases as the (required) level of STEM knowledge increases, Rothwell reported. "Higher levels of education, higher pay and more valuable skills are associated with longer duration times" for advertisements of posted positions.

"For STEM jobs requiring a bachelor's degree or higher, Fresno has the longest average duration, at 68 days," Rothwell added. San Jose was second at 59 days. Two Midwestern cities, Minneapolis and Toledo, Ohio, tied for the shortest average ad duration for STEM jobs at 24 days.

Susan Elrod, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics at California State University, Fresno, said that educational institutions need to do a better job of helping students understand the importance of science, math and technology courses to their futures.

"I don't think we've done a good job of telling people that if they get a STEM degree, or even a minor, they will be more sought out by employers," Elrod said. "People think about math and science and think, 'Oh, that's hard,' rather than thinking about science and math helping them get a good-paying job."

Elrod said Fresno State requires all students to take a math class and a science class as part of their general education requirements for graduation. "A lot of them think it's just something to check the box as a requirement," she said. "I want them to think about STEM classes providing them with valuable skills, no matter what the job is."

But Blake Konczal, executive director of the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board, said the region also needs to beef up its share of industries and businesses that have a need for STEM skills.

For the Brookings analysis, labor market analytics firm Burning Glass examined almost 1,900 jobs posted on companies' websites in the Fresno market in the first quarter of 2013. Of those ads, only 30% included substantial STEM skills among their requirements. That proportion ranked Fresno 93rd among the 100 largest metropolitan areas of the U.S.

"What their study shows about the paucity of positions that require STEM skills would be in sync with the limited number of industry sectors that we are dealing with in Fresno specifically and the Valley generally," Konczal said.

As a result, he added, students who do graduate from college with a STEM education find limited opportunities and often seek careers outside the region. "We don't have some of the industry sectors, and some of those sectors don't have the diversity of positions, which drives the flight of some graduates," Konczal said. "We regrettably don't have an economy to employ all of those graduates."

In Fresno County and the agriculture-rich San Joaquin Valley, STEM jobs are less likely to be high-tech types of positions like those found a few hours away in the Bay Area. Rothwell said that STEM skills are spread across a wide range of occupations -- health care, heating and air conditioning technicians, auto mechanics, installation and maintenance jobs, and other fields that aren't necessarily as obvious as engineers and computer hardware and software experts.

"It might seem strange to see Fresno grouped next to someplace like San Jose among places where it is hardest to fill STEM jobs, but these are very different economies," Rothwell said. "In Fresno, it's going to be a lot more health care jobs like nurses."

Even in the health industry, local employers have trouble filling their more skilled positions, said Michael Dozier, executive director of Fresno State's Office of Community and Economic Development. "When I talk to people at the hospitals, they're always saying how difficult it is to bring doctors and other skilled workers to the Fresno-Clovis area," he said. "They are constantly recruiting."

There are also STEM jobs to be found in the agriculture industry, but not to the extent to drive significant employment, Dozier said.

In San Jose, where STEM jobs are more plentiful, the average market value of STEM skills required in job advertisements was pegged by the Brookings analysis as the highest in the nation at just over $73,000 a year. In Fresno, by contrast, the average was less than $59,000, or 91st out of 100 large metro areas. Some of that difference, of course, can be attributed to the higher cost of living in the Bay Area, but, "The implication is that the skills listed in ads are valued more by employers in San Jose than in Fresno," Rothwell said. "It's an interesting measure of demand for skills."

Not all STEM occupations require a college degree, but they do require at least some amount of education in science and mathematics and technical training in the field.

"It is extremely valuable to allow students to get industry-relevant skills while they're in high school," Rothwell said. Around the U.S., there are moves toward rebuilding STEM-oriented vocational-training programs into high school curricula -- such as the Center for Advanced Research and Technology, or CART, a joint program of the Fresno and Clovis school districts. In such programs, Rothwell said, "students learn extremely valuable skills that can lead to decent-paying jobs right out of high school."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @TimSheehanNews on Twitter.

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