To make it in today's economy, workers must have skills that employers value. With technology seemingly ubiquitous in virtually every field today, advanced degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) would appear to be the hottest demand.

Over the last decade however, much of that emphasis has funneled down to STEM jobs that require less than a bachelor's degree, and trade schools and community colleges have gained prominence in providing the training and education for tomorrow's workforce.

Getting a college degree has long been thought of as the best path to steady employment and a decent income. That's still the case of course, but the level of that degree has changed. Increasingly, employers are seeking out candidates with real-world, applicable tech skills over those who have simply attained a four-year diploma.  

It is accepted that knowledge in STEM subjects leads to high-paying careers, but there is a misconception that all STEM workers are advanced degree holders. According to recent Brookings Institute reports, a re-defining of STEM workers is taking place. Many more jobs that require sub-baccalaureate training are now being included in the STEM net.

Examples of these sub-bachelor STEM occupations include industrial machinery mechanics, registered nurses, auto mechanics, carpenters, supervisors of production workers, electricians, machinists, pipe-fitters, welders, machine programmers, chemical technicians, and sheet metal workers.

In our area, manufacturers and industrial employers seek out students from community colleges to fill these roles. Dodge City Community College Professor of Physical Science Sherry Curtis said local industry has big needs for STEM-trained workers of all levels of training and education.

"Places like Curtis Machine need engineers that design parts and specifications, but also need workers with the skills to actually build them and operate sophisticated machines," she said. "You don't have to have an advanced degree to run a CNC machine, but you do need math and science and reasoning skills.  

"Koch has to have people with some level of engineering skills. Servi-Tech has to have chemists and lab-techs. There's always going to be a demand. Our tech programs are well-aware of the need for sub-baccalaureate jobs."

The Brooking Institute reports say that as of 2014, 10 percent of all U.S. jobs are sub-bachelor’s STEM jobs. With an average salary of $53,000, they provide good-paying career paths at a time when less than one-third of young adults are finishing expensive, time-consuming four-year degrees.

Even in agriculture, STEM training is valuable. DCCC offers agronomy programs that work with Koch Industries' crop science laboratory to train workers in soil sampling for nutrient and chemical detection. Implement manufacturers have developed equipment that uses global positioning and advanced manufacturing techniques requiring technical skills that don't always require four years of training or more.

"Most of our programs are technology-driven," Ryan Ausmus, DCCC dean of workforce development said. "You wouldn't believe the volume of phone calls I get from employers about automotive and diesel technicians, welding and nursing. Those are direct needs we hear about from industry people."

Companies in the area regularly contact the school about STEM-trained students - often before they complete even associates degree work.

"We have industry people come in and take students out of our programs before they've even finished," Ausmus said. "The students have the skill-set ready and they just come and pick them out."

Half of all STEM jobs are available to workers without a four-year college degree, and these jobs pay $53,000 on average - which is 10 percent higher than jobs with similar requirements. Half of all STEM jobs are in manufacturing, health care, or construction industries. Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations constitute 12 percent of all STEM jobs, one of the largest occupational categories. Other blue-collar or technical jobs in fields such as construction and production also frequently demand STEM knowledge.

Curtis said traditional STEM occupations are supported by the sub-bachelor level jobs. She sees them working hand-in-hand.

"One does not function without the other," she said.

Curtis feels that the NSF focuses on the four-year pathway because it looks at technology from a top-down perspective. "You may know how to work with technology, but someone has to know how the technology works. Without that then all the sub-baccalaureate jobs don't exist. You have to have both sides or nothing functions."

Curtis said most support for sub-bachelor training in this area comes directly from the businesses and industries who need those workers through grants, scholarships and donations like the Lewis Technology Center at DCCC, built in 2013 and funded by Roto-Mix, Crustbuster/Speed King, Building Solutions, Davis Electric, Stewart Plumbing and Jim Lewis.

Curtis and Ausmus both say the college would like to expand its tech offerings in general, but funding for facilities is very limited and finding qualified instructors is difficult.

"There is demand for growth and they could certainly get students in here," Curtis said. "The other side though is that you have to have the staff and the facilities. That's the number one challenge."

According to Brookings, of the $4.3 billion the federal government spends every year on STEM education and training, less than 20 percent goes towards supporting sub-bachelor’s level training, while twice as much supports bachelor’s or higher-level STEM careers. The vast majority of National Science Foundation spending ignores community colleges.

Joann Knight, executive director of the Dodge City/Ford County Development Corporation, said additional technical training programs would greatly benefit the area.

"It would help our existing industries expand as well as make the area more appealing to companies," Knight said. "Companies like to see that you have a higher trained workforce."

Knight said Ford County has a lot of non-traditional students who could benefit from expanded sub-bachelor training.

"I'd like to see us doing more," she said. "Whether it's the community college doing it or if we bring in a four-year university to offer some sort of certification programs. The more education opportunities we have out here the better we are."

STEM jobs that require at least a bachelor’s degree are highly clustered in metropolitan areas, while sub-bachelor’s STEM jobs are prevalent in rural as well as metro areas.

Sectors that offer the best chances for middle-skill STEM careers include energy, manufacturing, instrument technology, design and construction, health care and bioscience. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimates that there are approximately 30,000 unfilled middle-skill jobs in the health care sector alone, which is expected to grow by 14 percent over the next five years. Those jobs - such as registered nurses, paramedics, lab technicians, medical records technicians, surgical technicians, radiology specialists and MRI technologists – pay anywhere from $25 to $35 an hour.

Demand for nursing programs at DCCC grows every year, according to Mechelle Hailey, director of nursing and allied health. The program is approved for 40 students per year but enrollment has been limited to 30 in order to maintain a high level of quality.

Ausmus said there have been discussions with Kansas State University agriculture officials about developing dairy tech programs, as well as developing a wind energy technician program similar to that of Cloud County Community College in Concordia.

While spending years at a university is still the surest route to earning a middle class salary, it is not the only means of acquiring valuable knowledge. People working in skilled occupations with an associate’s degree or training certification have some of the most scientifically and technically sophisticated jobs in our economy.

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