In This Issue
Summer issue of The Bridge on Undergraduate Engineering Education
June 12, 2013 Volume 43 Issue 2

State-Level Measures to Close the STEM Skills Gap

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Author: Dennis D. Berkey and Joanne Goldstein

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts enjoys a citizenry highly educated in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) as well as thriving high-tech and life sciences industries. Yet there is a shortage of workers appropriately trained and educated for what are often referred to as middle-skills jobs in these industries. Such jobs—lab technician, computer specialist, advanced manufacturing technician, radiation therapist, airplane mechanic, and EMT professional, among others—account for 45 percent of US employment (44 percent in Massachusetts) (Holzer and Lerman 2009).

To address this shortage, business and political leaders across the country have called for an increase in the number of students receiving baccalaureate and advanced degrees in STEM fields. But employers point to a shortfall of employees with basic competencies appropriate to functioning in the technology-intense environments of today’s workplaces. For instance, a 2005 report by the National Association of Manufacturers found that, although 35 percent of manufacturers anticipated a shortage of scientists and engineers in the coming decade, more than twice as many anticipated a dearth of skilled production workers (NAM 2005). That situation has not changed. In January 2012 Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick reported that 240,000 people were seeking employment while 120,000 jobs sat unfilled.1 Many of these jobs do not require advanced degrees but rather the skills and knowledge of a two-year associate’s degree or specialized training available in technical/vocational high schools.

The responsibility to prepare young citizens for a productive and fulfilling life means providing them with a quality education and the know-how to use that education for personal and professional achievement. This is especially true during times of economic stress, when unemployment is high and opportunities are in short supply. It’s even more imperative when there is a disconnect between growth industries and the skilled workers needed to advance that industry.

Governor Patrick and his administration are addressing these challenges through their commitment to education at all levels, and they are doing so in a highly collaborative way. Massachusetts has established a number of public-private partnerships among industry, academia, and government. The governor also called on his secretaries of Economic Development, Labor and Workforce Development, and Education to coordinate their efforts to prepare the state’s youth and adults for middle-skills jobs that are in demand. And he created the position of Director of Education and Workforce Development (who reports to all three secretaries) to engage high schools and community colleges in building career pathways that correspond to industry demand, beginning with advanced manufacturing, life sciences, health care, and information technology. As described below, these efforts are already producing impressive outcomes that offer students more educational choices, better career readiness, and greater access to employment.

Strategic Partnerships

Massachusetts has made significant investments in leadership for STEM education across the K–12 spectrum. For example, the governor’s STEM Advisory Council, established in 2009, is a dynamic forum for meaningful collaboration among STEM advocates from business, government, and education. It is the state’s principal entity for promoting study and achievement in STEM subjects, reaching out to students and their parents as well as the general public.

Early on, the STEM Council, in an effort called @Scale, identified and promoted programs that were working well and could be scaled up for broader impact. One such program, the Mass Math + Science Initiative (MMSI; part of the National Math and Science Initiative), has increased enrollment and outcomes in advanced placement (AP) classes in STEM and in English language courses, especially among minority and low-income students. MMSI combines rigorous study with multiple levels of academic support, including extended-day and weekend tutoring, and professional development for teachers.

Figure 1

The attention paid to these areas has influenced Massachusetts schools, particularly the commonwealth’s vocational and technical high schools. An example of such is the recent high achievements at Worcester Technical High School (Figure 1). Under the visionary leadership of principal Sheila Harrity, and with strong support from the business community, Worcester Tech has gone from the lowest- to the highest-performing school in the Worcester Public School System on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System in just six years. In 2012, 88 percent of the students scored in either the “advanced” or “proficient” categories in English/language arts and 78 percent in mathematics, compared to 27 and 35 percent, respectively, just six years earlier. Moreover, Worcester Tech is enrolling increasing numbers of students in honors or AP courses, and more than 70 percent of its graduates go on to four-year colleges or universities.2

Worcester Tech has also engaged community partners to develop new career-oriented programs. One example is a partnership with Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, which runs the Tufts at Tech Community Veterinary Clinic, a student-run clinic at the high school. This innovative learning facility, using students from both schools, gives high school students an opportunity to learn from veterinarians, and offers citizens in the greater Worcester area affordable veterinary care. The Tufts program is just one of a range of offerings at Worcester Tech that combine career readiness with strong academic skills.

Education of Students and Parents

Another goal of the Massachusetts K–12 initiatives has been to educate both students and their parents about the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the 21st century. To that end, education and business leaders from across the commonwealth came together in a special task force, Integrating College and Career Readiness (ICCR), which was established in 2011 by the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and completed its work in July 2012.3

The mission of the ICCR task force was to propose ways to increase student and parent awareness of the advantages of early thinking about career plans, to determine whether or not they involve college-level preparation, and to ensure the acquisition of necessary knowledge and abilities. The task force noted that although parents are prime influencers in a student’s education, they are often unaware of the educational requirements associated with specific career opportunities. It is therefore important to educate and inform parents as much as students.

Among the pertinent findings of the task force was that there is significant overlap between the courses and experiences that lead to success in both college and careers, and that students who pursue studies in math and science have an advantage in both. Moreover, many growth industries require technical know-how and at least a basic familiarity with mathematical and scientific thinking, so continuing engagement in these areas strengthens a student’s preparedness. Thus the task force emphasized the value of (1) continued study in STEM subjects throughout high school and (2) internships, engagement with mentors from the business community, and other practical means of enabling students to understand the nature and requirements of the world of work. This finding raises worthwhile concerns about persistent distinctions made in some schools between “college prep” and “general” tracks of study.

To further enhance student preparedness, Massachusetts adopted a high school program known as MassCore that requires four years of English, four years of mathematics, and three years of a lab-based science. MassCore is designed to ensure that all students graduate with the basic knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in college, career, and citizenship.

Community Colleges and Internships

Massachusetts recognizes that community colleges are vital to closing the skills gap, especially through coordination of their curricula and learning outcomes with the needs of growth industries.

To that end, the Massachusetts Life Science Education Consortium (MLSEC) designated subcommittees, composed of leaders from business, higher education, and the MLSEC staff, to study the life sciences curricula at community colleges along with the skills requirements for middle-skills jobs in that industry. The study showed that 8 of the commonwealth’s 15 community colleges meet or exceed the defined criteria for an effective program, while also identifying opportunities to enhance the remaining programs. The 8 selected programs, designated “gold” or “silver” depending on whether they include an internship opportunity, earn a three-year endorsement from the MLSEC, which in turn posts information online so that students can identify the community college programs best suited to their interests.4

The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) is a quasi-public agency created to administer Governor Patrick’s 2008 commitment to $1 billion in funding for the life sciences industry over the next 10 years. The MLSC facilitates collaboration between industry leaders and two- and four-year colleges to promote the alignment of curricula with life sciences industry sectors experiencing worker shortages. The MLSC also works to ensure that students receive not only the education and training needed to succeed in the life sciences but also professional mentoring and guidance on how best to enter and navigate this rapidly growing field.

One of the MLSC’s most successful programs is its Internship Challenge, which offers Massachusetts college students opportunities for real-world experience in the life sciences industry.5 The Challenge strengthens the talent pipeline for the industry by offering companies—large and small, startup and established—funding for paid internships to be awarded to the strong-est applicants. These internships expand the pool of prospective employees, enabling more students to explore career opportunities while learning firsthand how their knowledge gets applied. Since the program launched in 2009, MLSC has placed over 900 interns at nearly 300 companies throughout Massachusetts.

Workforce Training and Development

Massachusetts recognizes the need for labor force development for its adult population and has invested in postsecondary education training programs and facilities. The commonwealth helps adults remap their skill sets through a system of services and tools overseen by the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. For example, the online One-Stop Career Center helps thousands of job seekers access education and training opportunities in STEM and other fields.

In addition, the state’s Workforce Training Fund ensures that resources are available to employers to train their incumbent workforce. Since its inception in 1998, the fund has awarded grants totaling nearly $214 million to train over 301,000 workers at over 4,000 companies in the manufacturing, professional, technical, services, and other industries critical to the commonwealth’s economic growth.

Massachusetts colleges also strengthen the STEM workforce in a variety of ways. One example is the state’s partnership with Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). Both partners have invested in a new, state-of-the-art Biomanufacturing Education and Training Center (BETC; Figure 2), located on the WPI campus. The MLSC gave $2.9 million to fund the facility’s build-out costs as well as a $250,000 equipment grant. Similarly, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth broke ground last year on a biomanufacturing facility that will offer real-world training opportunities for students.

Figure 2

These are just a few of the wide range of programs developed through collaborative efforts and funded by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and its leading industries.

The Way Forward

Massachusetts has enjoyed a long and distinguished history of innovation. From the birth of the American Industrial Revolution to life-changing medical breakthroughs to the rise of the computer industry to the parsing of the human genome, Massachusetts has been home to some of the nation’s most dynamic innovations, in large part because of its exceptional system of higher education, both public and private.

Today, however, it is no longer viable to view postsecondary education solely through the prism of undergraduate and graduate degree programs. With a large portion of students falling outside that category, and with the increasing need for development initiatives that target the middle-skills workforce, Massachusetts has created a comprehensive and collaborative model for supporting STEM education in the practical context of career readiness and industry needs. This model has flourished thanks to a series of policy initiatives invoking public-private partnerships and investments in STEM education, from K–12 through community colleges, four-year universities, and workforce development programs.

Massachusetts colleges and universities have long championed lifelong learning, which has never been more relevant than today. The pace of innovation and discovery makes continuous learning essential for the modern workforce. And advances in technology are changing not only the way people work but the way they learn. From online colleges to certificate programs at community colleges to distance learning and massive open online courses, students and professionals have more choices and opportunities to gain the education they need to position themselves for rewarding careers. Ensuring that these new forms of learning are widely known and accessible is just one way that the state has leveraged the power of its STEM education system.

In our positions at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the state’s Office of Education and Workforce Development, we are proud to help Massachusetts benefit from the expertise and interest of academia, industry, and government, collaborating to identify and implement strategies that strengthen workforce development while providing young people with better-informed educational choices, stronger outcomes, and greater access to careers in rapidly growing sectors of the economy. We hope that the report of these achievements will be useful to others with similar aspirations.


Holzer RJ, Lerman RI. 2009. The Future of Middle Skills Jobs. Washington: Brookings Institute.

Monfredo J. 2012. Raising the bar with more AP courses. GoLocalWorcester, October 27. Available online at raising-the-bar-with-more-ap-courses/.

NAM [National Association of Manufacturers]. 2005. 2005 Skills Gap Report: A Survey of the American Manufacturing Workforce. Washington.


1 Massachusetts 2012 State of the Commonwealth Address, January 23, 2012. Available online at of-the-commonwealth-address.html.

 2 These results are available online at worceste r-technical-high-school/.

3 Information about the task force’s mission, work, and members is available online at

4 The community colleges and descriptions of their biotech programs are posted on the MLSEC website, develop ment/massachusetts_life_sciences_education_ consortium /biotechnology_programs.

5 Information about the MLSC Internship Challenge is available online at

About the Author:Dennis D. Berkey is president and CEO of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Joanne Goldstein is Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.