Scientists at work at San Diego life sciences company. File photo courtesy

By Sara Pagano

When you think of San Diego, the first things that come to mind are sunshine, sand and surf. But what’s not as apparent is our city’s burgeoning workforce and local economy that depends on STEM talent — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

STEM can be found in all industries and in every aspect of our lives. It’s no longer isolated to scientists in lab coats or astronauts, but includes the unexpected careers like architectural design for amusement parks, sport statisticians, and environmental scanners, according to Mashable.

Having STEM skills benefits workers across a wide range of industries and our region as a whole. The San Diego Workforce Partnership says many of the local priority sectors, including advanced manufacturing, clean energy, health care, life sciences and information & communication technologies are all STEM-related. Also, many jobs in what The San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation calls San Diego’s innovation economy, including clean-tech, genomics, aerospace, cybersecurity, medical devices and life sciences — are also STEM-related.

But why is San Diego not our nation’s top STEM career destination?

Committing to STEM

Sara Pagano

While the area is a hotbed for STEM, San Diego still needs to do more.

There’s a lot of STEM work, but not enough qualified workers in the region, which forces San Diego STEM companies to recruit from outside of the area. Another challenge is that many local graduates with STEM backgrounds are leaving America’s Finest City to find STEM jobs in other cities, including Seattle, Boston, Austin and Pittsburgh.

It’s essential that San Diego County commits to growing and maintaining the local STEM workforce through education, career opportunities, entry-level jobs and internships as we want STEM workers to come to San Diego and stay here.

Cheers to STEM

To understand the value of STEM in the region, look at the life sciences sector. The life science industry in San Diego County employs 50,000 people and supports an additional 133,000 jobs as well. The local industry generates $34 billion annually. There are 1,225 life science companies in the county. In the past five years, local employment in the life science industry increased 20 percent.

STEM jobs in San Diego are growing including in the maritime and military, as well as cyber security. Even craft beer is a STEM field! With about 160 breweries in the city, that’s a significant economic impact. San Diego has a diverse population and that diversity can bring innovative ideas to the table with different perspectives.

Getting Involved

Community involvement can help cultivate a STEM culture in San Diego, too. STEM professionals can engage students, graduates and community members in over 200 organizations, non-profits and industry partners, talking about STEM and learning from each other. We’re going in the right direction with collaborative groups like the STEM Ecosystem.

The annual San Diego Festival of Science & Engineering, now in its 10th year, fosters an interest in and understanding of STEM. The festival was inspired by the vision of local entrepreneur Larry Bock, in collaboration with UC San Diego faculty. Now a program of the Biocom Institute and presented by the Illumina Foundation, this year’s eight-day educational festival will attract more than 65,000 kids and families get hands-on opportunities to learn about STEM.

Many local leading STEM companies support the festival — from world-class institutions such as Illumina, Qualcomm, ViaSat, Cubic, General Atomics and Hologic to local universities, K-12 schools, libraries, and community agencies. They know it’s important to engage students in STEM at a young age, especially since San Diego needs to think long term about growing its STEM workforce and fostering homegrown talent.

Sara Pagano is festival manager for the annual San Diego Festival of Science & Engineering. This year’s event runs March 3-11, with the kickoff free EXPO DAY at PETCO Park on March 3.