With the Oklahoma Bioscience Association (OKBio) recently becoming part of i2E, we've had a lot of discussions about what it takes to create an expanding bioscience sector within the state's innovation economy.
A ready answer of course is that it takes scientists — highly educated Ph.D.s who devote decades of their lives to research in the laboratories of Oklahoma's outstanding universities and foundations.
But the bioscience industry also needs scores of workers — technicians, analysts and research assistants — who are trained in the more “everyday” variety of science and math.
And Oklahoma's need for a deep bench of technical talent goes well beyond the bioscience industry and isn't limited to Ph.Ds.
An estimated 20 percent of the jobs in Oklahoma require science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills. Included in this estimate are many jobs that require less than a bachelor's degree.
This isn't new to the people at Chesapeake Energy, Devon or Williams. Chesapeake has more than 25 pages of job postings on the Internet. Nearly all of them have a requirement for technical ability.
i2E's entrepreneurial clients in software, information technology and social media understand it too — companies like MedEncentive, Failsafe Hazmat Compliance and PinLeague. Patent attorneys and investors in technology-driven companies get it, and so do physics and biology professors in our universities.
Yet in a recent survey of Oklahoma high school students, only 12.4 percent expressed an interest in engineering, 8.1 percent in science, 5.9 percent in technology and 1.6 percent in math.
Across the state, there is a broad, general feeling that we could be doing a better job of preparing our young people for future jobs by increasing their education in technical disciplines.
But a general feeling doesn't translate into more STEM graduates. And waiting to focus on science and math education when students reach high school doesn't yield the kind of technical expertise that will make the difference between a leading innovation economy and an “also ran.”
Something has to change.
Oklahoma needs a strategy for creating more STEM expertise, from students attending our Career Technology Centers to MBA students and university graduates with associates, bachelors and advanced degrees.
That strategy has to involve parents, educators, business leaders, and the legislature to direct appropriate resources to STEM — and it has to start before middle school when student interest in STEM starts to disintegrate.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state's technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state appropriations from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org.
DID YOU KNOW?
Oklahoma is estimated to have 81,000 STEM jobs to fill for 2018.