Our Views: STEM jobs need basics

Last month’s commencement season brought a lot of attention to the promise of college graduation — an especially worthy goal in Louisiana, where the percentage of college graduates lags behind the national average.

But a four-year college degree is not for everyone, and there are some good middle-class jobs out there for those who opt for alternative forms of training. That’s the big lesson from a new report on jobs in science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — for people without a college degree.

The report, authored by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, ranked Baton Rouge at No. 1 and New Orleans at No. 3 for the percentage of such jobs in the local economies of America’s top 100 metro areas.

Brookings analysts concluded that 12.6 percent of all jobs in metro Baton Rouge and 12.4 percent of all jobs in metro New Orleans are available to workers who don’t have four-year degrees but do have substantial knowledge in science, technology, engineering and math. Many of those jobs are in the petrochemical industry or related construction trades.

Clearly, the report isn’t meant to diminish the value of education. While the jobs described in the report might not require a bachelor’s degree, they do demand a fairly sophisticated command of math and science — the kind of skills that must start in elementary and high school, and perhaps continue in a community and technical college.

Also, in the broader economy, the highest wage earners still tend to have college degrees.

That means the fundamental mandate for Louisiana’s education system hasn’t changed. We still need to produce more college graduates, but we also need a strong community and technical college system to provide alternatives for those who aren’t college-bound.

But the biggest goal must be producing more high school graduates with solid foundations in basic math and science. Without that, too many Louisiana residents will continue to fall short of their economic potential.