New Jersey's Path to a Healthy Economy

by Dr. Joel S. Bloom, president of New Jersey Institute of Technology

As widely reported by national and state commissions, the success of the United States in the 21st century, its wealth and welfare, will depend on ideas, innovation and invention. The STEM professions -- science, technology, engineering and math -- are key to our ability to develop the ideas, innovations and inventions that will enable us to lead in areas of significant challenges and opportunities, i.e., energy, health, environmental protection, infrastructure, and national security.

It is projected that the nation will have up to 8 million STEM jobs by 2018.

Meanwhile, baby boomers’ impending retirements and students’ lagging interest in the technical professions are combining to create a serious shortfall in STEM workers – predictions say that 2018 will see about 3 million unfilled job openings in the STEM fields. The Department of Defense estimates that by 2013, 70 percent of the 100,000 engineers and scientists working on military projects will be eligible for retirement, a potential problem for national security. 

In New Jersey the STEM crisis is even more pronounced. The state is home to 17 of the 20 largest pharmaceutical companies and fourth in bioscience patents; first nationally in broadband communications; and the second-largest information technology employer in the nation. Such a knowledge-based economy requires an educated workforce: the Governor’s Task Force on Higher Education found that New Jersey will need to fill 269,000 STEM-related jobs in the next five years.

But STEM-based industry is only half the picture. New Jersey faces a decade of rebuilding infrastructure as well as creating new types of cyber-security measures. Some looming needs over the next decade include: 15,289 lane miles of highway to be rehabilitated; a $16 billion commitment to water infrastructure; and the restoration and expansion of New Jersey Transit Services estimated at $12 billion, to be designed and managed by STEM professionals.

And yet, our state is falling behind in the education of new professionals to take on these jobs. We are 36th among the states in bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields and 25th in graduate degrees.

The Governor’s Task Force has charged NJIT to take a leadership role in the state’s economic recovery through education and applied research. We are helping New Jersey to build what is now being called an innovation/invention “commons” or “ecosystem,” a close collaboration across all sectors – academe, business and industry, government, foundations and funding agencies – with two major goals: to attract enough youngsters into the technical professions to meet the state’s needs, and to encourage and expedite innovation and commercialization of our research results.

First and foremost, we need to heighten our efforts among K-12 students to attract them to careers in STEM-based professions, building upon our universities’ efforts with such companies as PSE&G, Panasonic and ExxonMobil to stimulate youngsters through creative competitions and focused enrichment programs. We need more programs like NJIT’s NSF-funded Medibotics program that train middle and high school teachers to offer engaging science curricula.

And once we’ve recruited students to STEM degree programs, we need to work hard to keep them there by reinforcing the rewards and challenges of STEM professions. Undergraduate students and recent graduates make up the major portion of the “app economy” that nearly half a million jobs have been created in the last five years for developers of smart-phone and Facebook software applications. Higher education needs to support student innovation and entrepreneurship. At NJIT, for example, we are pioneering a new program in which student teams can work on their own inventions -- learning toys for autistic children, a “smart” living environment for the elderly or a bloodless glucose meter -- guided by advisors and sponsors from companies such as Forbes.com, IBM, Siemens, Summit Place Financial Advisors and Capital One Bank.

Partners in New Jersey’s innovation ecosystem also need to focus on research areas that hold the most promise for creating new industries and new jobs in our state. The State Strategic Plan identified several areas that resonate with NJIT’s  strategic direction in education and research: sustainable systems, digital  transformation, and life and healthcare science and engineering.

We have a strong infrastructure in place to turn research results into commercial ventures. New Jersey is 4th in the nation for patents awards, and NJIT ranks 3rd in the U.S. for most inventions per federal dollar.  NJIT’s Enterprise Development Centers, which specializes in high-tech start-ups houses 90 companies employing 800 people with revenues of $82 million.

We have the seeds of New Jersey’s innovation ecosystem already in place. With thoughtful execution of the State’s Strategic Plan and by developing expanded partnerships with New Jersey’s knowledge-based-technology-focused businesses and industries with our state’s research universities, we can help New Jersey  grow a highly vibrant and valued 21st century economy.