DNC Jobs Panel: Will STEM Jobs & Community Colleges Be the Answer?

The 2012 election is about jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs. And the economy. That’s what everyone says, and that’s what many convention speeches are about. But what jobs? For which segments of the population? Working parents? Kids just out of college? Students trying to work their way through college? Or high school grads just trying to find a good-paying position?

It’s all well and good to talk about the need for jobs, but it’s clear that American want some specifics.

That was the topic of an innovative panel at the Democratic National Convention sponsored by the Huffington Post, entitled, “What is Working? An impressive lineup of speakers, moderated by Tom Brokaw and Arianna Huffington, explored those questions in this context: How can the media help change the conversation to move our country out of its current economic malaise and give families hope that they can make a good living and support their families in the decades to come?

Jobs Panel

As part of Huffington’s new Jobs Initiative Project, she convened a panel of high-profile experts — one here in Charlotte for the Democratic Convention, and another panel in Tampa, where the Republicans nominated Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate. Each panel explored that question with business leaders, academics and celebrities to help us all think in new ways about where to out our country’s efforts to create more jobs.

The DNC’s panel of heavy-hitters included Scott Case, CEO of Startup America (who was also present in Tampa), as well as Gene Sperling, Director of the National Economic Council; Rosario Dawson of Voto Latino; and singer Will.i.am. Each had fresh perspectives on creating opportunities for the long-term unemployed, as well as high school and college-aged kids. One idea embraced by a variety of panelists was encouraging more students to explore community colleges and vocational schools, rather than traditional four-year colleges.

While that sounded a little radical to me at first, the idea makes some sense: a strategic look at what jobs might be available years down the road can anticipate opportunities to provide many jobs, while being realistic that not everyone wants a traditional four-year college experience.

On the flip side of that coin, the panel also focused on new ventures that will commit resources over time to training programs. In what one speaker called a global war on jobs, private businesses and the public sector need to be smarter about looking down the road to see how industries are developing and anticipating what jobs are needed or are being outsourced.

In short, many businesses are putting their money where their mouth is in trying to create new ventures. For example, The Ford Foundation is committing $150 million over five years to explore and try to solve the skills gap that seems to account for part of the unemployment problem. And The Rockefeller Foundation has created a contest with a prize of $1 million for the most innovative solution to our jobs problem.

But my favorite speaker of the day was Will.i.am, who is a major advocate of STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Math — education programs, especially for students who worship music and sports stars, but don’t see the opportunities in STEM careers. Will.i.am has personally funded a $5 million dollar program to encourage students at the school where his mother was a teacher as a way to open their eyes to the vast possibilities in STEM careers and he’s created a million dollar contest to convince tweens and teens that STEM jobs are “cool.”

No, this discussion did not involve some huge government or private program that will solve our families’ economic woes overnight. But innovative thinking could just be the long-term solution to our jobs situation.

Image by Joanne Bamberger. All rights reserved.

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