Are STEM Degrees Losing Their Luster?

by Dr. Patrick Jones

Is a tech-oriented state economy bypassing the greater Wenatchee area? One clue is the relative penetration of STEM jobs, as seen in the indicator from the Vitals by the Institute at the Association of Washington Business (AWB). Among the 13 metro areas covered by the AWB Institute, the greater Wenatchee area ranks from second from the last in the share of STEM jobs.

Another clue lies in the degrees issued by Wenatchee Valley College (WVC) in STEM fields. As Trends indicator 9.1.12 reveals, the share of STEM degrees of all 2-year degrees has been on a decline since 2012.

STEM, or science, technology, engineering & math, takes on a few definitions, none of which are too different from each other. Significant for the Trends is the inclusion of health science degrees into our definition. This is a common addition to the “core” STEM disciplines.

Specifically, the STEM degrees counted at both WVC and all the state’s 2-year institutions are: computer science, physical sciences, and health & clinical sciences. Statewide, other disciplines, apparently not offered at WVC, are counted: engineering & engineering technology, biology & tech, math & statistics, and science technology.

At WVC, the total 2-year awards peaked in 2011-2012 school year, with 172 issued. The school year for which the most recent data are available, 2019-2020, produced 110. That implies a drop of 62 STEM degrees over the past decade.

Peering into the detail, we see that in largest category - health & clinical science -- 2-year awards fell from 154 to 89 between 2011-12 and the most recent school year. There was no decline in computer science nor physical science awards over the same interval. But both categories are much smaller than health.

Unfortunately, we do not have access to the detail within health & clinical science. Health areas of study, and ostensibly of degrees, at Wenatchee Valley College include: nursing, nursing assistant, medical assistant, pharmacy technician, medical lab technician and radiologic technician. So the decline in two-year allied health degrees over the past decade may come from any one or all of these disciplines.

The decline in allied health degrees has occurred at the same time that the regional health sector has expanded. In fact, as Trends indicator 2.3.3 reveals, nearly one our of every seven jobs in the two counties could be traced to the healthcare (& social assistance) sector in 2020. That is up considerably from one out of every 9 workers in the two counties a decade prior. In terms of headcount, 2020 jobs were 1,850 in 2020 than in 2010. That gain was, by far, the largest among the 19 sectors in the two-county labor market.

Given these forces of declining supply and increased demand for the regional healthcare workforce, it should not be a surprise to see these occupations at the top of the list of posted jobs in Chelan County. For the most recent snapshot for Chelan County, May, they clearly dominate. At the top of the list were home health and personal care aides. In fourth place were nursing assistants. In sixth, registered nurses, and in fourteenth, medical services managers. Physician assistants were 24th on the list. Altogether, about 22% of new job postings came from this one sector.

Postings for Douglas were smaller overall and smaller for healthcare occupations. Still, at 17%, the total for healthcare jobs is not a small share of all job openings.

A solution, of course, is for the various healthcare organizations of the two counties to import the talent. Given the lengthy training for many healthcare professions, this is understandable. Wenatchee Valley College is likely not poised to educate physicians, psychologists, nurse practitioners, among others, anytime soon. Thankfully, Eastern Washington now has three medical schools – one in Yakima and two in Spokane – that should help fill local demand. And nursing education at Eastern Washington University is poised to launch in a year.

But most communities prefer to “grow their own” professionals wherever possible. The greater Wenatchee area is likely no exception. What steps, then, can be taken to encourage more students to take up STEM majors, especially health degrees?