Demand high for qualified science and tech employees in Arizona - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Education News

Demand high for qualified science and tech employees in Arizona

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Posted: Tuesday, December 6, 2011 3:57 pm | Updated: 10:10 am, Wed Dec 7, 2011.

When it comes to the demand of science and technology jobs, Arizona is one of the top states in the country, the Arizona's Technology Workforce Report states.

However, for many years, there has been an "urban legend" that there aren't enough qualified, educated people to meet the demand of high tech jobs in Arizona, said Steve Zylstra, president and CEO of the Arizona Technology Institute.

Arizona employs more people in its workforce in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (commonly called STEM) than the national average.

However, at the same time, attracting and retaining those workers is more difficult in Arizona than it is in other technology driven western states, such as Washington and California.

The report details how and why people are coming (or not coming) to the state and how Arizona can make it easier for technology firms in the state to find employees that meet employer needs.

"It's much less that people don't want to move to Arizona," said Molly Castelazo, a consultant on the project. "It's much more that people don't want to move or can't move. It wasn't a finding that people are willing to move to California or Washington, but not to Arizona."

When looking at supply and demand for technology talent, it's important to look at the wages in Arizona compared to national averages, said Kent Hill, the principal investigator for the report and a research professor at Arizona State University.

"Generally speaking, in this country over the last 30 years, the wages of all kinds of skilled and educated workers have been rising and they've been rising faster than the wages of people without a lot of skills, without a lot of education," Hill said.

That being said, STEM jobs in general and STEM jobs in Arizona don't pay as much as other related, highly skilled fields or as high as other states.

Compared to legal, health care or management occupations, STEM jobs haven't seen as high of a wage increase in the last decade, the report shows. During that time, management wages have risen nearly 55 percent, while computer and mathematical occupation wages have only grown by 33 percent. All occupation wages in the U.S. have grown by 35 percent.

"Generally speaking, and for sometime, Arizona wages in all types of occupations are lower than the national average," Hill said. "This can't be explained completely by job skill and education; we usually refer to it as the ‘sunshine factor.' To a limited degree, people are willing to move here even if they don't make as much because they prefer the climate."

Arizonans make about 5 percent less than the national average looking across all job types, Hill said.

"We're a relatively low producer of degrees, comparing it to the size of our workforce," Hill said. "But another important point is that the entire west coast is a low producer of (STEM) degrees."

For example, Washington State (think Boeing and Microsoft) is the most science and engineering intensive state on the west coast and it relies extensively on workers educated in other states to fill positions, Hill said.

Castelazo said, "It doesn't seem that Arizona need be a high producer of technology talent in order to have a strong technology industry as long as scientists and engineers are willing and able to move into the state."

Of new hires in Arizona STEM companies, about 60 percent were Arizonans, she said. For most jobs, there is sufficient talent in-state to meet the demand of employers.

For employers, however, there is a certain skill set that limits many new hires and that is the amount of experience the prospective employee has and not the amount of education, Castelazo said.

Most employers are looking for employees with at least a bachelor's degree, Castelazo said. Very few of the employers interviewed in the report hire people straight out of a two-year degree program, the report states. Even companies that have a high number of employees with associate's degrees or a degree from a technical school look for at least two years of work experience when hiring.

To help fill the need for technology talent in Arizona, the state universities are looking at ways to increase the amount of practical experience students have when they graduate, said Michael Crow, ASU president.

To an employer, it's important for students to show that they have built software, something more than being able to read a book and ace a test, said Dennis Hoffman, professor of economics and director of William Seidman Research Institute in the W.P. Carey School of Business at ASU.

"The future of the Arizona economy, the future of the American economy will be dependent upon being able to compete at a global scale," Crow said. "We need to find a way to maintain our captured position of the leading center for scientific and technologic enterprises on the planet. You do that by creating environments, cultures, or (what) I call ‘ecosystems' where these enterprises can be grown and nurtured."

Local businesses need to be surrounded by good, local talent to be successful, Crow said. ASU and Intel have the beginnings of that. ASU is the top producer of employees to Intel, he said.

And the best way to connect graduated students to local employers is to give them practical work experience through capstone classes and internships, Crow said. It gives students the work experience that employers so highly value.

"The ecosystem is working okay right now, but it isn't working as well as it needs to work," Crow said. "It is not enough to just produce more scientists and engineers."

That means that even small STEM companies in Arizona should work with the three large state universities, Castelazo said. They need to know that they're not too small.

Contact writer; (480) 898-5645 or sspring@evtrib.com

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