N.Va. leaders stress STEM, real-world training for students

Tamika Tremaglio, Deloitte’s managing principal for the Greater Washington area, talks about the need for innovation and corporate citizenship during the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce's 27th annual economic conference, held Jan. 31, 2019, at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)

With a successful fund-raising campaign under his belt and a slew of expansion projects in the works, George Mason University president Ángel Cabrera was ebullient Jan. 31 when he addressed the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s 27th annual economic conference.

“It’s been an absolutely terrific year for your university,” Cabrera said at the event, held at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner. “We’re delighted that our work is paying off in very, very tangible ways . . . The state of George Mason University is mighty strong.”

The university’s recent Faster Farther fund-raising campaign collected more than $690 million, far exceeding the $500 million goal that some people has told Cabrera was too lofty.

Mason, the commonwealth’s largest and fastest-growing university, has been growing by about 1,000 students per year and this past December graduated the largest class in its history, Cabrera said. But public funding for the institution has not kept up with that growth, he said.

Cabrera advised audience members to deliver this message to their state legislators, who currently are in Richmond for the General Assembly session: “It would be great if our university in Northern Virginia were funded just at the same level as all the other research universities in Virginia. We don’t need a penny more.”

Amazon decided to locate half of its “HQ2” facilities in Arlington and Alexandria, despite better cash incentives offered by other U.S. localities, because “this is where talent is,” he said.

“When a company like Amazon decides to set up shop, they go to places where there is a high concentration of elite universities,” Cabrera said.

“It is essential that all of us keep our eyes on what is going on in higher education,” Cabrera said. “There is a lot at stake. The future of our economy will be as strong as our source of talent and ideas is, and that’s our universities.”  

Mason will invest more than $250 million over the next five years to expand its Arlington campus to 1.2 million square feet. Students at the campus, located near Amazon’s planned digs, will focus on STEM, cyber-security, engineering and other technical fields.

Communities will continue to rely more on technology, but must ensure that people from all walks of life are prepared to work and grow during the new industrial revolution, said Tamika Tremaglio, Deloitte’s managing principal for the Greater Washington area, who also spoke at the conference.

Higher education will play a key role in meeting those needs. Several new kinds of colleges are offering real-world experiences like those found in the workplace and they emphasize lifelong learning instead of just obtaining two- or four-year degrees, she said.

The University of California at Irvine has developed a tech incubator where people within the university can submit their ideas and potentially receive research money from venture capitalists and seed funds.

Closer to home, Virginia Tech will spend $1 billion to build an innovation campus for graduate students near Amazon’s future site, while Mason is creating an Institute for Digital InnovAtion and a new computing school, she said.

In the private sector, Deloitte is offering internships and a mentoring program, plus grants to promote advance STEM education in middle schools, Tremaglio said. Other company programs address the scarcity of women and minorities in STEM fields.

Bridging the “skills gap” will be critical, as a recent study by Deloitte and the National Association of Manufacturers estimated that during the next decade 2.4 million manufacturing jobs would go unfilled for lack of skilled workers. Companies need to help employees develop STEM knowledge and other high-tech skills, she said.

“Like it or not, we may have to step in and become a more active part of an individual’s educational journey, working with schools in a complementary fashion,” Tremaglio said.