Job creation continues to be one of the most urgent and pressing issues for working families and businesses, especially as unemployment rates remain over 9 percent and as our fiscal outlook seems uncertain.

But there is a glimmer of hope.

Recently, the Economics and Statistics Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce released a report showing that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs grew at a faster rate than non-STEM jobs over the last decade. Importantly, growth in STEM jobs is also projected to grow at a faster rate (17 percent) than growth in non-STEM jobs (9.8 percent) between 2008 and 2018. The report, “STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future,” also finds that STEM workers earn about 25 percent more and are less likely to experience joblessness than their non-STEM counterparts.

This rosy outlook in STEM employment, however, calls into question our ability as a nation to meet that future job growth with qualified workers. These optimistic projections are occurring at a time when employers report difficulty being able to find appropriately-skilled workers, highlighting a skills gap in our labor force.  They are occurring at a time when tuition burdens have increased dramatically for middle-class families, and at a time when median incomes have stagnated. And, they are occurring at a time when 75 percent of Americans think that college is too expensive for most to afford, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center this spring.

Given these challenges, how can the business community play a key role in helping to strengthen our nation’s workforce so that workers can be eligible for the jobs of the future, and help drive innovation and economic competitiveness?

Peggy Walton, Senior Director of Workforce Readiness at Corporate Voices discussed this issue at a workforce session during the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region’s 21st Annual Summit on Wednesday, July 20, 2011. This session focused on the link between higher education and labor markets. Walton gave an overview of Corporate Voices for Working Families’ Learn and Earn initiative, describing how best-practice industry partnerships with higher education institutions help workers–especially those who need to work– complete their postsecondary education credentials. Walton said,

“Greater employer support for postsecondary education completion and relevant training will enhance the talent and skills of the workforce, which will, in turn, fuel innovation and growth.”

Jennifer McNelly, Senior Vice President of the Manufacturing Institute, also participated in the workforce session. McNelly is the chief architect of the NAM-Endorsed Advanced Manufacturing Skills Certification System. This system is a set of nationally portable , industry-recognized manufacturing skills certifications. Maureen Fallt, who leads workforce planning efforts for Portland General Electric (PGE), also presented information on the programming of the Center for Energy Workforce Development as part of the session. Presenters gave an overview of postsecondary completion work being accomplished with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Over 600 leaders from business and government convened at the summit to address major policy issues impacting the region, including renewable energy, tourism, trade and economic development and workforce issues. While one of the major themes of the conference focused on international trade and economic development, summit-goers expressed concern with labor mobility challenges between the U.S. and Canada, and recognized that a critical basis for economic development and innovation is a skilled and talented workforce.

Employer-supported Learn and Earn programs, like the ones cultivated by the Western Association of Food Chains (WAFC) and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), provide flexible programs that result in credentials with labor market value, and help position workers on meaningful educational and career pathways. In this way, these programs can and do contribute to healthy and functioning labor markets.

By identifying and showcasing these Learn and Earn best practices, Corporate Voices encourages employers and community colleges to collaborate on a wider scale to provide working learners with training and postsecondary education, resulting in enhanced options for career mobility.

With the growth of these innovative industry-led partnerships, the rapid growth of STEM jobs will perhaps present a more realistic goal for many workers in the future.