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Recent advances in entrepreneurship and training in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, are bringing new career opportunities to Maine.
But some people worry that a persistent gap in the workforce prevents the state's burgeoning STEM industries from finding the talent they need.
That was the subject taken on by a panel of STEM experts in a webinar this week, “The Future of STEM Jobs and Innovation in Maine.” It was hosted by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Science is US, a nonprofit that brings together leaders in science, engineering, industry, higher education and labor.
The session was the last in the two groups’ “STEM Workforce Development in Maine” four-part series. The goal of the series was to provide best practices to businesses and stakeholders to help recruit, train and expand the STEM workforce in Maine.
A recent report by Science is US found that a substantial portion of Maine’s employment, labor output and state gross domestic product is supported by STEM: 58% of Maine jobs, 66% of Maine’s output and 61% of Maine’s gross domestic product.
But by 2020, Maine had sunk to No. 43 — its lowest ranking in at least a decade — in a study of how each state’s science and technology capabilities spur job growth and the creation of wealth.
Data show that Maine lags the nation as a whole in developing a workforce for science-based and engineering jobs.
But there’s plenty of potential for growth. The life sciences, for example, are among the fastest-growing industries in Maine, with job growth and wages far outpacing state averages.
During the series, speakers have noted that STEM is not just about scientists in lab coats and Silicon Valley coders. It includes diverse disciplines feeding ever-changing industries.
During the Wednesday webinar, Austin Williams, director of partnership development at the Roux Institute in Portland, said a variety of approaches are needed to build the STEM workforce in Maine.
The institute is a new academic center that focuses on technology and life sciences education and research. It welcomed its inaugural class of 76 graduate students last September and has been developing partnerships with employers and others to develop what it calls an “innovation hub.”
Williams said that state-sponsored workforce training to “reskill” workers for STEM disciplines has been useful in Massachusetts to connect workers with employers and provide workers with opportunities for economic mobility.
Sascha Deri, founder and CEO of bluShift Aerospace in Brunswick, said the question of workforce training also hinges on connecting youth and interns to STEM opportunities. But that can be logistically challenging in a largely rural state like Maine, he noted.
Ruth Kermish-Allen, executive director of the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance in Augusta, said a continuum of STEM education that begins before kindergarten is important to feed the workforce.
Among its activities, the alliance provides professional learning experiences and partners with Maine businesses to sustain PreK-12 STEM education.
“Maine is at a pivotal point right now,” Kermish-Allen said. “We have a STEM workforce gap that’s significant.”
Kids need to experience STEM education through elementary, middle and high school in order to light “that spark of ideas and innovation and interest and desire” that will ultimately fill the workforce, she said.
The alliance is also working with rural communities to encourage STEM education as it applies to local economic activities, she said. When residents of a small coastal community are asked to point out STEM jobs, they won’t point to diesel mechanics and boatbuilders, for example. But STEM is inherent in those professions: “We just haven’t been calling it STEM to date,” she said.
“We need to ensure that our populations are fully STEM-literate,” said Claire Alicia Nelson, founder and president of the Institute of Caribbean Studies in Washington, D.C.
Deri cited bluShift as an example of the workforce potential in Maine. His company recently launched a prototype rocket, called Stardust 1.0, from the Loring Commerce Centre in Limestone. Stardust is Maine’s first commercial rocket and the world's first commercial rocket powered by biofuel.
The company is working toward developing small rockets that can lift 30-kilogram payloads to low-Earth orbit to serve the rapidly growing cubesat (miniature satellites) launch market.
Within the next five years, Deri said, he plans to grow his staff from a handful to as many as 50 employees to tackle the suborbital and orbital launch market. Jobs, he noted, cover a broad range of skills but all fall under STEM — from engineering, manufacturing and software development to finance and sales.
The Roux Institute is well positioned to serve employers like bluShift, said Williams. By this June, the institute will have over 200 enrolled learners in its degree and certificate program as well as 300 “corporate learners.” The numbers across both categories are expected to increase to several thousand in the next few years, he said.
Millions of dollars will be available for scholarships and job creation, while the institute works with industry partners to create co-op programs for Maine-based undergraduate and graduate students, he said. The institute also expects to launch an entrepreneurship program in the months ahead in partnership with small businesses and local resources that are already in place, he added. The institute has grown from 10 initial partners to over 40 today.
The institute will measure itself by the opportunities it creates, he continued: “Have we advanced individuals’ capabilities and people’s sense of what’s possible by way of education? Have we facilitated dynamic research, new ideas and new outcomes? How many companies have we helped, how many companies have we accelerated, how many companies have we launched, how many companies have we attracted?”
Kate Foye, director of legislative affairs and communications with the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development said that, while the agency has been focused on its response to pandemic over the past year, it’s starting now to look toward economic recovery with workforce development as an important component, particularly with regard to STEM careers.
STEM education and training is key to Maine’s economic recovery, she continued, as a vehicle to connect people with new types of jobs, to build an adaptable workforce and to be ready for the global economy of the 21st century.
“STEM education and training will help us get there,” Foye said.
She continued, “We need to make sure that students see STEM as enabling, not just an end product. If you can’t see it, you can’t dream it and you can’t be it.”