Editor’s note: STEM News is a new feature provided through a collaborative effort with the NC STEM Community Collaborative, MCNC, and the North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology Center (SMT Center). To submit story ideas, please email LTW Editor Rick Smith rsmith@wral.com or Noah Garrett noah@thinkngc.com.

By: J. Keith Crisco, N.C. Secretary of Commerce

RALEIGH, N.C. – What should your community look like in 20 years? Like most North Carolinians, you want it to be a vibrant, prosperous place with a high standard of living and quality services to support your children and grandchildren.

While many N.C. cities and towns are building this bright future, the path is not as certain as it was in previous decades.

One major factor is the changing economic dynamic. Twenty-first century jobs require different, more specialized skills than the jobs of the previous century. The communities whose workers have these skills will experience economic growth; those without qualified workers will be at a significant disadvantage.

What are these skills?

Some are foundational skills – communications, teamwork, analysis, and decision-making – and some are specialized to a job, cluster, or career. One area that teaches all of these skills is science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

When we think of STEM-related jobs we often think of highly-specialized areas like doctors and biomechanical engineers. But, that’s not the full picture.

Farmers must predict crop-yields, line-workers must use computers, and even artists must have the entrepreneurial talents to succeed. In every industry, the recruits an agile workforce with STEM skills needed for North Carolina to be competitive.

According to a study, 61 percent of jobs today require STEM skills, but only 21 percent of our children have them. Those numbers have only gotten worse since the study was released in 2008.

The good news is that as the economy improves, STEM jobs are among the first to return.

According to the released last week , accounting, business administration, computer science, engineering, and math majors were more likely to receive and accept job offers than other types of graduates. That translates into good jobs all across the state for young people with STEM-related degrees.

And, it’s not just young people who benefit from STEM skills.

Many communities are shoring up their future by retraining adult learners in STEM, thereby attracting STEM industries.

Just look at the work being done across the state with the in Kannapolis, the in Kinston, and the economic opportunities created by the relocation of U.S. Army Forces Command and U.S. Army Reserve Command (FORSCOM) around Fayetteville and south-central North Carolina.

Thirty years ago, Greenville’s economy could be summed up in one word: tobacco. Today, while agriculture is still important (and increasingly requires STEM skills, by the way), medicine is the primary economic force in Pitt County.

STEM businesses and jobs, combined with a STEM-literate workforce, will lead these areas to an economic rebirth. It’s our best strategy for making every North Carolina community healthy, vital, and ready to face the 21st century.

I am a living example of STEM education. Born and raised on a farm in rural Stanley County, I was lucky enough to major in mathematics and physics at Pfeiffer University. That training served me well at Harvard Business School, and later as head of Asheboro Elastics.

I never could have grown a manufacturing business that “keeps your pants up” without the STEM background taught to me as a high school graduate and eventually a Pfeiffer undergraduate.

We’re cheating our kids and cheating our state out of an economic future if we don’t provide STEM education to all kids.

Our competition is not next door, but around the world. The jobs that our governor, our department, and our towns compete for today can go to other countries with a workforce that has been studying calculus since middle school.

I know we can compete with any country, state or community on quality of life, business climate, and innovation –magazines like Fortune, Money and Site Selection tell us this every year. If we can also be the best state in education innovation and STEM skills – which I know we can – we’ll have even more industry competing to be in North Carolina.

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