With a growing population of young people, Southwest Washington’s many STEM-related industries—those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—would seem well positioned for hiring a strong workforce.

But there is a problem: Up to 81 percent of new, high-growth, well-paying jobs in the region require a post-secondary certification, credential or degree—and only a third of area students who start high school each fall are expected to obtain one.

The Southwest Washington STEM Network is working to shift that balance by partnering with school districts, businesses and institutions of higher education.

“The current K-12 system can’t do it alone,” said Ben Bagherpour, vice president of SEH America and a member of the STEM Network since its inception more than a decade ago. “We need higher education, K-12 education, businesses, and the community as a whole working together.”

That’s exactly what the STEM Network’s newest initiative—Manufacturing Career Launch—entails. The pilot program involves a two-yearlong, part-time, paid, work-based learning experience at SEH America. Designed for recent high school graduates from Evergreen School District, the program also offers participants the opportunity to earn associate’s degrees at Clark College.

“It’s cost effective, it uses existing systems, and it’s sustainable,” said Ted Feller, executive director of the SW WA STEM Network.

SEH’s first-ever cadre of Career Launch participants began orientation July 2, and the six recent high school graduates were quickly absorbed into various departments in the silicon wafer manufacturing plant. Some are now learning how to use equipment like wire saws, while others are learning about processing silicon.

“These Career Launch participants haven’t closed the door to earning four-year degrees,” Feller said, “but they’ve gone from high school to learning skills, earning money and saving for retirement.”

When their Career Launch program ends, they will move into full-time positions at SEH.

The Manufacturing Career Launch pilot program was inspired in part by the Swiss educational system, where students can set off on a path toward a career or a higher education, but change paths when their interests or career needs change.

“A college degree is as valuable as it ever was, but it’s not the path for every student,” said John Steach, superintendent of Evergreen School District. “We need to identify viable paths for every student.”

A student intern at the SEH America silicon wafer plant

Among the new apprentices, three have already completed internships at SEH, and one has worked there part time. Some were headed toward college but unsure of what field they wanted to pursue or how they would pay for it. Other apprentices had no post-high school plan.

“Before I took material science”—a course offered in Evergreen School District—“I didn’t think about trade jobs. I thought it was college or bust,” said Eric Renner describing how “cool” it was to learn to create things, like the ring he forged in his high school class. “My life has truly taken a turn for the better.”

The Career Launch program also offers an important opportunity for SEH, which anticipates upcoming retirements of some longtime employees with highly specialized skills.

“It’s a way to transfer knowledge from one generation of workers to the next,” said Natalie Pacholl, SEH training and development specialist. “And for the Career Launch participants, it’s not just a job—it’s a career pathway.”

The SEH Career Launch program is the newest offering of the SW Washington STEM Network, which has been growing and evolving since 2011, recently expanding when some smaller, more rural districts joined.

The STEM Network is attracting attention statewide. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee visited Educational Service District 112 in Vancouver this spring to learn more about the program. He called the STEM Network model one he can highlight as the state puts his Career Connect Washington initiative into action.

“Career-connected learning can work in every corner of the state in multiple industries,” Inslee said. “We are working to prepare the next generation of Washington’s workforce for high-demand, good-paying careers, and we want to give every kid a path for future success, whatever their vision might be.”

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