Spokane Higher Education Continues to Educate More STEM Majors

by Dr. Patrick Jones

Spokane has long harbored ambitions to pump more technology fuel in the tank of its economy. Over the past decades, the county’s economy has turned away from its founding extractive industries – agriculture, mining & timber – and become heavily service oriented. Parts of the service economy pay well, but many do not. Technology based economic development (TBED) has been seen here as a way of raising incomes. 

To be able to point to a stronger tech presence, an economy faces a shopping list. One item is the formation of tech firms. They can appear as an offshoot of an existing company (Itron from Washington Water Power), a local “birth” (Medcurity, Cyan, Paw Print Genetics), or one “imported” by the relocation of their founders (Matrical and Signature Genomics, from a few years back).  

Other items on the list include the presence of early risk capital, appropriate space, skilled managers, and certainly not last, a skilled workforce. With the exception of risk capital, the shopping list looks the same for locally created or tech companies from elsewhere that want to expand their presence with a Spokane area office or plant. This column looks at workforce, increasingly a, if not the, most critical entry on the checklist of tech firms. 

A workforce with technology chops can emerge by in-migration of highly skilled people. Or it can emerge from local efforts to grow our own skilled workers (human capital). In most cases, the presence of strong tech human capital is a product of both forces. The approach to grow our own, however, is typically favored because it gives the children of residents an opportunity to acquire skills that lead to higher-than-average wages, and significantly, to stay in the area. Parents usually appreciate that, too. 

Not surprisingly, the Spokane business community has pressed for greater tech emphasis in education. And both local K-12 and high ed institutions have stepped up. At the K-12 level, the county is now graced with efforts like the Project Lead the Way in many of our county’s middle and high schools.   

Over the past decade, local higher education institutions have also expanded programs in a variety of ways. EWU now offers degrees in electrical and mechanical engineering. Whitworth University has developed an outstanding computer science program. Gonzaga has added nursing and human physiology majors to its already strong commitment to engineering. The University of Washington has expanded its medical school slots in Spokane, while expanding their physical footprint in conjunction with Gonzaga. The Community Colleges of Spokane now offer some highly sought-after degrees in medical technology.  

WSU has perhaps undergone the greatest metamorphosis by concentrating all its health disciplines onto the Spokane campus. And yes, in our view, health belongs with technology, or more specifically under the umbrella of STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. Schools of pharmacy, nursing, and most recently medicine now grace the Spokane higher ed landscape. To boot, WSU Health Sciences also harbors a renowned sleep research lab, active in basic and applied research for the private sector and military. 

One way of keeping track of the progress of local human capital is to track degrees granted in the STEM fields of local higher ed. (Another would be to survey new residents about their degrees, an expensive piece of research.) The focus groups that guided the composition of indicators on Spokane Trends voted to show these degrees over time; the result is Indicator 3.5.7: Total and Share of STEM Degrees Granted at Regional Higher Education Institutions on Spokane Trends.

It is very clear that higher ed has responded to the request from the community to produce a greater pool of local STEM degree holders. Of the dozen-plus years covered by the indicator, total STEM degrees issued have increased by well over a thousand, from 1,617 to 2,772 in 2019. That’s a cumulative gain over 71%. 

Indicator 3.5.7 breaks down the degrees conferred by type. It is easy to see that the most common one has been a BA or BS. For the most recent year, 2019, over 1,700 were granted by local higher ed. It is also the degree that has enjoyed the greatest increase, at least in total terms, over the past 13 years. Yet, Masters degrees in STEM fields have almost quadrupled over the same interval. And the number of doctorate degrees have climbed from zero to between 150-200. 

This rapid growth raises the question whether Spokane’s higher ed STEM degrees have caught up with demand. Probably not locally. And certainly not for the state. Hundreds of nursing and computer software jobs are posted nearly every month in the county, according to data from the Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD). From the state perspective, the number of postings for those fields are the thousands. Postings for other STEM fields easily find themselves in the top 25 jobs in demand published every month by ESD.  

It is this writer’s hunch that for the remainder of STEM occupations in Spokane, a rough balance currently exists. But that doesn’t hold for the state at large. Several STEM occupations, in addition to nurses and software developers, show large projected demands, mostly in the realm of computer science but also for engineers (civil and mechanical).  

For Spokane to keep its increasingly deep pool of STEM graduates, a greater number of tech jobs need to appear. Whether those jobs are created by local entrepreneurs or by branch office of tech companies headquartered elsewhere is probably not a big question for local STEM graduates. My hunch is that they just want an employer to give them a local opportunity to show their stuff.