Stennis project to produce “roadmap” for STEM jobs

MSETWith high-tech science and technology jobs expected to grow at a faster pace nationwide than other occupations, South Mississippi is embarking on a key project that should help ensure it can satisfy the growing need.

In it’s 20th year of operation, the Mississippi Enterprise for Technology (MSET) is conducting a unique project that will result in a “roadmap” of STEM employment in South Mississippi, starting with a survey of Stennis Space Center in Hancock County. The project is funded by a $100,000 grant from the Economic Development Administration with a match of nearly $30,000 from MSET.

The goal of the South Mississippi STEM Project (SMSP) is to identify jobs and support career opportunities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), said Charlie Beasley, MSET’s president and CEO. The work of collecting data and developing a plan to ensure local resources are supportive of current and future STEM needs will conclude in September.

“The South Mississippi STEM Project is an opportunity for MSET to play a unique role in developing and enhancing the STEM environment for this region of our state,” said Dr. William Lewis, president of Pearl River Community College and chairman of the MSET board.

“In capturing this unique data, MSET will serve as a repository of information that will be critical for any individual, group or agency that needs assistance with obtaining information specific to STEM activities and opportunities in south Mississippi. It is our hope that in serving in this special capacity we will be servicing a very special need that will help grow the economy of this region of our state,” he said.

The right place

Stennis, the NASA-managed hub for science and technology focused federal and state agencies, is the springboard for the project that will extend throughout South Mississippi. Beasley said Stennis is a major STEM economic engine for the region, with more than 40 government and military agencies and organizations focused on high-tech missions.

Indeed, Stennis is where hundreds of scientists and technicians work in fields as varied as rocket propulsion, geospatial technologies and environmental science. Universities from multiple states have operations at Stennis, which also houses one of the world’s largest supercomputers and a major national data center. It’s where rocket systems, satellite subsystems, and jet engines are assembled or tested by companies like Aerojet Rocketdyne, Lockheed Martin, and Rolls-Royce. It’s also home of the U.S. Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, with one of the largest concentrations of oceanographers in the world.

STEM education is important not only to SSC, but to the rest of South Mississippi, the state and nation. From 2000 to 2010, the 7.9 percent growth in STEM jobs was three times as fast as the 2.6 percent employment growth in non-STEM jobs in the United States. In 2010, the nation had 7.6 million STEM workers (about 1 in 18), according to a 2011 research brief from the Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration.

By 2018, STEM occupations will account for about 8.6 million jobs in the U.S., Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce projected in 2010. In a separate study in late 2011, the same center concluded that STEM is second only to healthcare as the fastest-growing occupational category in the economy. Looking ahead, STEM employment through 2018 will grow by 17 percent compared with slightly less than 10 percent growth for non-STEM occupations.

The MSET study should help South Mississippi satisfy its future needs. And MSET may be just the right organization to handle it. Headquartered in the 56,000 square-foot Mississippi Technology Transfer Center, MSET is a nonprofit established in 1994 to create high-wage, high-skill jobs as a business incubator and technology transfer office.

Joint effort

A joint effort of the Mississippi Development Authority, NASA and the state’s universities, it was primarily designed to leverage federal science and technology assets for business and job growth throughout Mississippi. With this role comes the responsibility first given to MSET by the state Legislature and the late Gov. Kirk Fordice in the mid-1990s to operate the state’s Mississippi Technology Transfer Office.

In this capacity, MSET is a clearinghouse where research at Stennis can be converted into products and services for the general public and where companies can access unique laboratory services. As a business incubator, MSET provides an environment where start-ups stand a better chance at surviving and thriving through providing business and technology-related services. Special services are also available to large businesses or companies located in other parts of the state or region, including guidance on how companies and entrepreneurs can do business with Stennis entities.

And with economic development a key result of MSET’s work, the study makes sense.

“The STEM project’s base and focus is Stennis, but we will also reach out to the lower 15 counties in Mississippi where a good portion of the Stennis economic impact is felt and where other important STEM activities are located,” Beasley said.

Beasley, whose background is in economic development, is the project manager. Consultants Laurie Jugan and Tim Brogdon are project analysts for the grant. Jugan, who represents client and technology transfer services for MSET, is a scientist and Brogdon is an engineer and president of PSCI, an MSET incubator company that provides engineering, technology development and consulting primarily to NASA and defense agencies at Stennis.

Beasley said the work will involve mainly data gathering and interviewing STEM employers. A comprehensive questionnaire will be the basis for the information collected.

“We will interview all STEM employers including NASA and the major agencies, commercial companies and contractors at Stennis,” he said. Data also will be collected from community colleges and universities, economic development organizations, small business service providers and other local resources that support the creation of STEM careers and success of STEM-based industry.

Beasley said the project will be looking for trends in hiring.

“We are not sure what we will ultimately identify from it. We may find gaps between capabilities we have now in the operations that rely on STEM talent versus the needs these organizations are anticipating for the future,” said Beasley.

STEM opportunities

One question they intend to answer is, are there enough STEM job opportunities for college graduates or to draw professionals to work in Mississippi?

“All of us feel strongly,” said Brogdon, “that we want to make sure if a young STEM professional wants to work here in Mississippi they can do it and make sure employers know if they have opportunities for STEM professionals that we would like them to look locally.”

The study will help identify workforce needs, gaps in communication and any challenges employers may be facing in the hiring process such as compensation, benefits and quality of life issues, “typical areas in which STEM professionals may have certain demands,” Beasley said.

Jugan said the project has two overarching benefits. One is finding out what employers are looking for in a job candidate other than a degree. She said attributes such as special skills or experience gained during an internship can help a candidate get hired. “Our job is to ferret out other desirable training, knowledge or skills so students going into STEM careers are as prepared as they can be,” she said.

The second benefit from the STEM project will be identifying assets in the region that will help attract high tech workers. “A STEM professional is going to expect a certain quality of life and educational opportunities in an area,” she said. Any deficiencies found can be addressed “so we can position the local area to be more attractive to STEM professionals.”

STEM industries and the jobs they create have a significant economic impact in Mississippi, said Skip Scaggs, a long-time MSET board member and formerly of the Mississippi Development Authority.

“As companies seek to improve productivity, they are doing it through technology-laden investments that demand more than a strong back, but a strong mind. Paralleling the increase in investment is the company’s need to pay for the elevated skill levels through higher wages for employees. The more emphasis we can place on STEM education the better we are serving our two customer groups: students and their future employers,” Scaggs said.

— with permission from the Mississippi Enterprise for Technology at the Stennis Space Center

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