Massachusetts is awash in selective colleges, hyper-competitive high schools, and gold-plated resumes.
So you might assume that our biggest selling point would be a school-to-workforce pipeline bursting with highly qualified young people. But you’d be wrong.
Though there are many factors involved — declining international immigration, Baby Boomers aging out of the workforce — the scale of the problem is now so big that there’s really only one solution: education. We have to create much better school-to-career pathways for K-12 students.
But isn’t education already our calling card? Aren’t we churning out the country’s top students? Well, kind of.
But the gaps in educational achievement and offerings have grown so vast, they threaten the economy.
“The strength of the highest-performing student scores appears to carry us over this ‘average’ finish line,” notes Ed Lambert, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, or MBAE. “We’re first, on average. But it’s really a very disparate story.”
Though high-schoolers in some communities overwhelmingly attend two or four-year colleges after graduation — like 90 percent of graduates from Weston High School — that’s not true in lots of other places.
In New Bedford, Chelsea, and Lawrence, for example, the percentage of high school graduates enrolled at any type of college the year after graduation is closer to 30 percent.
And because of these yawning gaps, Massachusetts isn’t producing the workers that innovative companies need — at least, not at the scale that they’re needed.
“Everything I’ve heard from our members this year makes me think we are in the middle of one of the most difficult hiring environments for biotech ever,” notes Kendalle Burlin O’Connell, the president and COO of MassBio.
The struggle for talent has gotten notably tougher, says Tricia Lederer, the director of communications and advocacy at MBAE. “We hear that often from our members and other employers across industries, but particularly in technical fields.”
And throw some serious demographic headwinds into the mix. While Texas and Florida, for example, have attracted new residents over the last couple of years, Massachusetts has seen net losses. MassINC predicts that our college-educated workforce will fall by close to 200,000 by 2030.
So, what if we ramp up the technical prowess of our high schools and community colleges? It’ll be a move in the right direction, but we’ll be playing catch-up with states that have been working on these sorts of pathways for years.
O’Connell points to North Carolina, which has made considerable investments in helping community college students enter the life sciences, developing a standard curriculum that she regards as a “game changer.” California, too, has rolled out a standardized approach.
Ed Lambert also ticks off states that are more coordinated in providing students with career roadmaps — states many in Massachusetts may scoff at: “I guarantee you that states across the country are much farther ahead than we are... Delaware, Texas, Colorado, North Carolina. Florida has done some amazing things in terms of getting credentials in the hands of kids that make them employable.”
Last year, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed legislation requiring high school students to take a computer science course before they graduate. South Carolina also requires high-schoolers to do some computer science.
Massachusetts, by contrast, does not require that high schools even offer computer science.
In a recent report, MBAE found that 27 percent of urban high schools in Massachusetts don’t offer any foundational computer science courses, and only 6 percent of high schoolers in the state took a foundational computer science course during the 2019-2020 school year.
“In this day and age,” says Lambert, “if you want to diversify your STEM pipeline, and you have kids who might be interested but just can’t get the course, that’s just not acceptable.” Girls and economically disadvantaged students enrolled in computer science courses at particularly low rates, relative to their population.
The Baker Administration, realizing the scope of the problem, announced last week that Massachusetts will launch STEM-Tech Career Academies, based on a type of technical school that has caught on nationwide, combining high school courses, community college work, and partnerships with employers (for internships, visits, and training).
“We need to be intentional, aggressive, and ambitious in building a pipeline of talent,” Secretary of Education James Peyser said in a webinar announcing the academies.
He noted that initiatives in Massachusetts, such as Innovation Pathways, have mostly been small-scale. “And that’s OK, because you sort of have to walk before you can run. But at this point we feel there’s been a fair amount of walking, and we have to pick up the pace and start running.”
Scale, as Peyser pointed out, is critical. And it’s where we’re falling woefully short.
Remember, too, that these jobs can be life-altering for a family. Biomanufacturing’s average salary tops $160,000 a year, while the average salary for biopharma is close to $200,000.
But last year, MassBio reported that 94 percent of companies had trouble filling non-entry-level positions, while 74 percent struggled to fill entry-level positions. The organization projects that about 40,000 new jobs will be created in life sciences in Massachusetts between 2022 and 2024.
And if there’s no one to take open positions, companies may be forced to relocate or, at the very least, open a satellite office closer to where skilled workers are.
“If we do not have a robust and diverse talent pipeline, we will not be able to stay on top,” O’Connell argues.
But let’s say Massachusetts can’t — or doesn’t want to — bridge the educational gap. Couldn’t employers poach some North Carolinians?
Easier said than done.
It’s much simpler to recruit folks with roots in Massachusetts, says Lederer. “It’s such an expensive state to live in, in terms of getting people to move here. The climate — there’s so many reasons not to come... You have to turn to your homegrown talent pool. You’re never going to fill your needs by recruiting from out of state.”
Lambert argues that this is a failure of systemic coordination. While some states develop overarching, top-down approaches to education, Massachusetts has a different approach.
“We have this deference to local control,” he says. “You know, this is New England. Everyone is parochial, everyone knows everybody else. The cradle of public education. We have school boards, and locals know best.”
Lambert doesn’t believe that approach is sustainable, or competitive. “We’ve just got to get to the point where someone is willing to say to schools and school districts: ‘This is a vision, we want you all to come into this vision. We’ll let you have some flexibility within that, but we want to ensure that you are going to provide all of your students with these kinds of experiences.’ And it can’t just be guidance.”
But what happens if our efforts to scale don’t really move the needle?
Answer: Jobs will get poached. And that’s probably already happening. North Carolina, O’Connell believes, is “very actively” thinking about poaching. As is Texas.
So far, folks with PhDs have gotten a lot — probably too much — of the glory in Massachusetts. But if we lose our competitive edge, it will be because we proved unable to spread the state’s educational wealth and intellectual capital.
Follow Kara Miller on Twitter @karaemiller.