Not long ago I visited a prominent bakery in my home county. Like most people who do not work in that type of environment, I expected to find a workplace filled with manual labor, such as workers lifting bags of flour. Instead, I witnessed a highly automated system of making the foods, with workers programming and servicing the computers running the lines. When I asked about their biggest need, the company leaders lamented the status of the available workforce and promoted more engineering and math training.

Even in a world of 9.6% unemployment, our State needs more highly trained workers. That’s why STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math — receives so much attention in today’s education community. We cannot succeed in economic development without workers who are able to perform complex math and computer-related functions.

In 2011, Tennessee is stuck with below average high school and college graduation rates and above average unemployment. This is a dangerous mix. We need to give recent education reforms time to sink in and let them work. These reforms are about defining excellence and enforcing accountability. Over time, Tennessee’s graduation rate and long-term employment will improve.

One positive sign is that more students in Tennessee and across the country than ever before have shown an interest in attending college. We need to help these students make their interests a reality. Unfortunately, many students don’t understand the requirements for getting into or finishing college. Too often, students drop out of STEM areas in high school and college because it is hard work. They fall behind in academic skills, and they don’t have the background to complete and compete in rigorous academic fields.

As an elected official, I am honored and excited to tour businesses like the bakery I mentioned earlier. Over the last decade, I have worked with the business community and government on several landmark economic development projects. Southeast Tennessee is home to numerous global leaders in advanced manufacturing and clean energy development, and the State is home to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. I wish more students could have an inside look at advanced car manufacturing plants like Volkswagen, solar panel processing plants, and LED lights companies. I know my experiences touring these places increased my understanding of the value of STEM education.

STEM is complex as are our educational problems. Pointing fingers at teachers, poor parenting, or lack of funding will not get us there. Decreasing the number of students entering higher education will set our progress as a State even further back. I held a Clean Energy Forum at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in October. I brought together experts from local LED lights companies to car manufacturers to professors to discuss the future of clean energy in Tennessee. Not a single participant advocated lessening Tennessee’s investment in STEM fields. Whether it is a prominent bakery, an energy company, or a college, education and business leaders recognize the value of STEM. I hope political and community leaders will work with schools, students, parents, and businesses to recognize its value as well.