Dec. 4, 2023
This article was produced as part of New America's Initiative on the Future of Work and the Innovation Economy. Subscribe to our Future of Work Updates & Events newsletter to stay current on our latest work. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Industrial policy in the United States is back. But the 21st-century version of those policies won’t be successful without policymakers aligning emerging technology and talent development to ensure quality job creation and reliable, equitable pathways for those jobs.
Community colleges have an important role to play, and the STEM Talent Challenge grant program administered by the U.S. Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration can help fund their participation.
The $4.5 million STEM Talent Challenge grant competition funds STEM education and training in support of technology and innovation economies. Earlier this fall, EDA announced the 11 recipients of the 2023 STEM Talent Challenge grants to community colleges, universities, tribal colleges, and workforce organizations across the United States.
STEM Talent Challenge grants support work across four thematic areas:
- Workforce Forecasting: Engaging regional entrepreneurs, innovators, and the organizations that support them to assess and forecast current and future talent needs and to develop collaborative solutions with work-based learning programs
- Training & Upskilling: Supporting upskilling and career preparation for the technical and scientific workforce that regional innovation ecosystems need
- Partnership Building: Strengthening collaboration among employers, educational institutions, economic and workforce development organizations, entrepreneurs, and the public sector to develop and enable better access to skilled workers for the innovation economy
- Job Placement: Placing new employees into immediate job openings with regional employers in need of STEM talent
While most community colleges and workforce development stakeholders are familiar with traditional workforce training funding sources such as the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration or the U.S. Department of Education’s Perkins Grant program, programs like the STEM Talent Challenge grants may fly under the radar of workforce stakeholders. It was authorized under the Stevenson-Wylder Act, the first major U.S. technology transfer law that required research commercialization efforts at federal laboratories.
However, the competition can be a key source of funding to support STEM workforce development at community colleges and other workforce training organizations. It provides up to $500,000 to education and training providers to fund career preparation that complements regional innovation economies.
“Through the STEM Talent Challenge program, we're making substantial investments in communities across the country to encourage innovation, create opportunities, and build local workforce pipelines in everything from semiconductor manufacturing to AI development," said Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, in a statement announcing the 2023 STEM Talent Challenge awardees.
2023 awardee, Austin Community College received funding for its Semiconductor Technician Advanced Rapid Start (STARS) Training Program, a partnership with regional manufacturers associations, to recruit students and employers into the program, and workforce boards to help students identify ways to pay program tuition and obtain wraparound support. Two employers also committed to sponsor apprenticeship programs as part of the grant.
2020 awardee, Howard Community College in Columbia, MD received a STEM Talent Challenge grant to scale its work-based learning programs in cybersecurity by strengthening relationships with pandemic-impacted employers to expand internship and apprenticeship opportunities for students. It also leveraged its grant to create more customized training programs for small and medium-sized IT businesses which committed to hiring out from its programs.
Analysis of EDA STEM Challenge Grant Award Winners
The Big Picture: Pathways to Jobs in the Innovation Economy
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has pointed out that the “science” portion of the CHIPS and Science Act (i.e., separate from its subsidies for semiconductor factories) will be “the engine of America’s economic development for decades to come.”
EDA’s STEM Talent Challenge grants are complementing many of the new CHIPS-funded workforce development grant programs focused on emerging technologies launched by the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships Directorate, which was also named in legislation as the first new directorate at the R&D agency in more than thirty years. The directorate, which has made community college support a priority since its conception, is charged with promoting economic development, startup formation, job creation, and workforce development for the innovation economy.
NSF launched funding opportunities such as the Experiential Learning for Emerging and Novel Technologies (ExLENT) program, a $30 million grant program to fund work-based learning partnerships for emerging technology jobs, and Enabling Partnerships to Increase Innovation Capacity (EPIIC), a $20 million grant program to support community colleges, HBCUs, and minority-serving institutions in building their capacity to support tech-based economic development, workforce training, and grow innovation economies through research partnerships.
NSF’s EPIIC and ExLENT and EDA’s STEM Talent Challenge grants are just a few examples of federal funding that can help community colleges and other workforce training organizations ensure that regions can align technology and talent development. This is particularly important in regions that have won or will win large federal place-based investments such as NSF’s Regional Innovation Engine grants, EDA’s TecHubs grants, and the Department of Energy’s Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs program to name a few.
Programs like these are critical because while more workers need STEM skills, not all need a degree. A little over half of workers classified as STEM workers by the National Science Foundation's National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, do not have a bachelor's degree.
As federal agencies and regions seek to foster jobs for the future, programs like these and the institutions that are supported by them play a critical role in seeing through the successful implementation of 21st-century American industrial policy while contributing to a more equitable and accessible technology and innovation economy than we have today. Colleges interested in following the STEM Talent Challenge Grants can subscribe to the EDA newsletter here.