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Originally published June 27, 2014 at 3:27 PM | Page modified June 27, 2014 at 4:04 PM

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Guest: How Seattle is falling behind other 21st century cities

The region must take aggressive actions to close the existing skills gap, according to guest columnists Randy Hodgins and Maud Daudon.


Special to The Times

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IN preparation for the Seahawks’ Super Bowl run, quarterback Russell Wilson famously, and successfully, challenged his teammates with three words: “Why not us?”

Seattle business and civic leaders should be asking the same question, given what competing regions are doing to secure their positions in the rapidly changing, technologically driven global marketplace.

The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce recently took local leaders to New York City to study an ambitious initiative to strengthen the city’s offerings in applied sciences. Considering it a smart investment, city government offered publicly owned land and up to $100 million in capital to help attract a new $2 billion applied science and engineering campus to Roosevelt Island.

A unique partnership between Cornell University and Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, this new campus has already spurred complementary efforts by Columbia University, New York University and Carnegie Mellon University.

This initiative drives home two critical points. First, in the 21st century, enhancing a region’s economic health and creating great job opportunities depends on having highly skilled workers to offer to employers. Second, other regions are working hard to enhance their ability to provide this talent. The New York example was eye-opening, but hardly unique. At the chamber’s annual Regional Leadership Conference last fall, attendees heard about economic development initiatives in leading cities across the country and around the globe.

Few cities are positioned as strongly as Seattle to succeed in a fast-paced, interconnected and technological world. Our local innovation sector is the envy of other cities. In addition to established and valuable industry clusters such as aerospace and software, our region enjoys a thriving biotechnology and global health sector and we are seeing an emerging clean-energy sector.

The success of these and other industries is directly tied to our highly skilled workforce — nearly half of all local workers over 25 have a postsecondary degree.

Unfortunately, many of these talented individuals are currently being imported from other regions because local companies can’t find the talent they need here. According to a 2013 Boston Consulting Group and Washington Roundtable study, there are 34,000 unfilled local jobs because employers can’t find qualified candidates — and that number is projected to increase to 50,000 over the next three years.

This skills gap means that too many of our own young people can’t take advantage of some of the most exciting career opportunities being created by local employers.

The bottom line: Our region is in a great position now, but we can’t take our current economic health for granted. The infamous billboard asking the last person leaving Seattle to turn out the lights reminds us that continued success isn’t guaranteed.

For Seattle to secure its place among leading centers of global commerce and innovation in the coming years, aggressive actions must be taken to close the existing skills gap, create great new job opportunities for local residents, and attract international investment, research and collaboration.

In a knowledge-based economy, higher-education institutions play a key role in creating and sustaining economic opportunities, particularly in the critical fields of applied sciences and engineering that serve as the foundation of so many new economic and job opportunities.

In addition to their traditional research and degree production roles, higher-education institutions also must work with employers and the broader community to find new and innovative ways to offer students and faculty the ability to tackle real-world problems in a creative, global setting.

Remaining globally competitive will require all of us to work together. We can begin by asking ourselves some challenging questions:

Why can’t we transform our education system to prepare all kids for the global economy?

Why can’t our region lead the country in math, science and engineering degrees?

Why can’t the Puget Sound find new ways to stimulate research and innovation?

Other regions are answering these questions with smart investments and innovative programs.

Why not us?

Randy Hodgins is vice president for external affairs at the University of Washington. Maud Daudon is president and chief executive of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.



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