Oregon is at a turning point. We have a booming tech industry that is propelling our economy into a stronger future, but we are not doing enough to inspire the next generation of Oregonians to take full advantage of these opportunities.

Oregon has a rapidly growing software industry. For instance, one company has had 60 engineering positions open at all times. Why? Because there are not enough qualified candidates to meet the company’s needs.

On the other hand, education leaders and the Oregon legislature have shown a real commitment to increasing participation in science, technology, engineering and math – collectively known as STEM. We dedicated $12 million to grow STEM programs, increased funding for career technical education and are continuing to work with community leaders to find ways to support.

If we are going to improve Oregon’s economy and keep our businesses on the cutting edge, we must act now to inspire the next generation of leaders.

I’m proud that one of the programs I championed in the Legislature has already had an overwhelming response from our educators. FIRST Robotics is a national K-12 program that brings hands-on, high-tech challenges to students.

Through partnerships with industry mentors, students in elementary, middle and high schools are able to take part in real-world problem solving while also learning about exciting opportunities in the robotics industry.

The Oregon Department of Education recently funded 76 grants for STEM-seeking middle and high schools, and a second round of grants will be available in 2014. Employees from Autodesk, Google and Intel will mentor teams in rural areas such as Umatilla through video conference calls. Students in Dufur, Hermiston, Silver Falls, Bandon, Phoenix, Suislaw and many more rural and metro areas will also benefit from new high tech learning opportunities through this program. Plus, we can look forward to seeing more than 700 student-inspired robots across our state!

The program also offers $17 million in college scholarships to encourage students to continue working toward careers in related fields.

All employment indicators tell us that job growth in Oregon will be centered in science and technology, and by 2018, STEM jobs will grow by 17 percent nationally. Oregonians should be among the top candidates for these important, high paying jobs.

Our high tech work force is looking bright, but we need to continue making smart investments in programs like FIRST Robotics whenever we can.

If students get on a directed pathway and earn an associate degree or equivalent, they can start earning a beginning salary of $60,000 per year in many areas.

This is the time to invest in research and development at levels that we haven’t seen since the height of the space race. That will take the “all hands on deck” effort. We have not seen such national leadership since John F. Kennedy challenged every American, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

I encourage all Oregonians to find a way to help inspire our next generation. Whether you mentor a middle school robotics team or simply thank an outstanding science teacher at your community school, you can make a difference.

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