insight magazine

STEM Sells

Illinois’ competitive edge hinges on preparing its workforce for continued innovation. By Carolyn Kmet | Summer 2016


Boasting a $736B GDP, driven by 30-percent growth over the last decade, the State of Illinois is a key player in our domestic economy, ranking fifth in the nation in terms of gross domestic product. With headlines constantly accusing Illinois of being a bad state for business, however, this may come as a bit of a surprise. The reality is that state efforts to nurture and drive advances in innovation and technology are showing significant signs of life.

Skokie-based Technology Innovation Center (TIC) is a perfect example. TIC exists to support technology-based companies at the earliest stages of growth—think pre-market, pre-money and even pre-employee. In 2014, for instance, TIC launched a laboratory-based incubator to provide entrepreneurs in the hard science industry with access to laboratories in a purely commercial environment. “This fills a critical gap in moving scientific innovation from the large institutions such as universities, hospitals and corporations where it is created, to the marketplace,” explains Tim Lavengood, executive director at TIC and Science Innovation Labs.  

TIC’s impact on the Illinois economy is nothing short of groundbreaking. “We’ve graduated more than 350 companies, including Illinois Superconductor Corporation, Peapod Inc. and Leapfrog Online,” Lavengood explains. “After 15 years, almost half of all TIC graduates are still in business. They’ve created more than 2,000 jobs, occupy more than 120,000 square feet of commercial space under rental, and have received more than $45M in private equity investments.”

While TIC is certainly a success story, Illinois’ economic growth remains vulnerable to a widening gap between business needs and workers’ skills in the advanced fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). According to Northern Illinois University’s Illinois STEM Education Report, the State is facing several headwinds: Increased productivity driven by technological advances, increased offshoring, and displacement of work to other states, which has thinned the ranks of manufacturing and high-tech positions. What’s more, Illinois’ displaced workers are having difficulty finding new employment because they lack the advanced technical skills demanded by new jobs within these sectors.

“The State must create high-paying jobs to bolster the middle class, while also significantly increasing the skill levels of the potential pool of workers so they are qualified to fill these jobs,” the Report states. “No matter how the State decides to overcome these challenges, a strong STEM education program is an inherent part of the solution.”

Indeed, if the State’s STEM initiative—Illinois Pathways—is right, by 2018 Illinois employers will offer more than 319,000 jobs requiring STEM education and training—a nearly 20-percent increase since 2008.

“The economy grows when individuals and businesses expand their presence or enter new markets. Unfortunately, the skills gap in STEM leaves engineering leaders, executives and HR professionals looking for the needle in a haystack, and without top talent, it’s hard to capitalize on the opportunities these new markets represent,” says Bassanio Peters, CEO of Assist 2 Develop.

In essence, the future of the Illinois economy and its ability to capitalize on STEM opportunities hinges on the future of our education system. Recognizing this, the State is looking to not only increase the number of STEM-educated individuals entering its workforce, but also change the way it approaches education on a fundamental level. For Illinois to remain competitive, school curricula must include an international perspective, learning and thinking skills, information and technology skills, and life skills, all taught starting in kindergarten, says the Illinois STEM Education Report. “The 21st Century worker needs to understand multiple disciplines; for example, an engineer needs to understand human factors, marketing, financial planning, and entrepreneurship,” the Report states.

Part of the State’s initiative includes the creation of the Illinois P-20 Council, which will foster collaboration between state agencies, educational institutions, community groups, employers and taxpayers in order to develop a sustainable statewide system of quality education and support. The “P” in the Council’s name represents preschool, and the 20 represents grade 20, or education after college. The goal: To increase the proportion of Illinoisans with high-quality degrees and credentials from 44 percent to 60 percent by the year 2025.

To further support this goal, Illinois Pathways has formed Learning Exchanges around high-demand career clusters and industries, including Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources; Energy; Finance; Health Science; Information Technology; Research and Development; and Transportation, Distribution and Logistics. Each Learning Exchange identifies local and regional business needs, facilitates partnerships and experiences to support educational pathways, and builds a framework of opportunities and resources to encourage student success within the nine industries. What’s especially unique here is that while each Exchange must have a State-approved strategic plan, they are operated voluntarily by independent organizations.

For instance, the Learning Exchange for Finance is led by Econ Illinois, a unit of Northern Illinois University’s Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development department. Beth Metzler, Econ Illinois’ vice president of Programs and Partnerships and lead for the STEM Learning Exchange for Finance, believes that by renewing the focus on science-based, STEM-related education, and by continuously challenging students to build decision-making and critical-thinking skills, Illinois grads will be uniquely positioned to enter the workforce. A key initiative of the Finance Learning Exchange, for example, is to bring high school students into the business environment to gain an understanding of the variety of jobs available within the finance field. And, in fact, the Exchange has coordinated several student/educator visits with Chicago’s second-largest public accounting firm PwC that include dialog with young professionals, participation in curriculum activities, a tour of the offices and more.

“It’s critical for educational institutions and businesses to work together to realize economic growth in Illinois. Both entities can play a unique role in preparing students for employment and for building a knowledgeable, competent and sustainable citizenship that has an opportunity to positively impact our state,” says Metzler.

The educational system is indeed changing. Starting this year, the State is requiring fifth- and eighth-grade students to take a new science assessment test. High school students taking biology or advanced biology classes also will be required to take the test, which is aligned with the new learning standards for science adopted by the State in 2014. The new Illinois Learning Standards in Science has three dimensions: Disciplinary core ideas, scientific and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts. The integration of these dimensions is intended to reflect how science and engineering are practiced in the corporate environment.

“The demand for STEM-educated individuals is driven by the increasing integration of technology within our society,” says Alexis Sheehy, an online marketing specialist with Klara, a startup in the healthcare industry. “STEM backgrounds are more marketable in the workplace for a few reasons: STEM roles are growing as technology begins to further integrate within our daily lives and industry, STEM roles can be applied to a number of industries as they continue to modernize, and traditional roles such as CMOs now benefit from knowledge of STEM concepts as data-driven decision-making increases in business.” 

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