Talk with any business owner, CEO, manager or scientist of technical organizations, and they all share the same concern. Nearly 30 percent or more of their work force is getting ready to retire over the next five to 10 years, and they don’t see enough science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors entering college or enough graduates in those fields entering the job market.

Literally thousands of STEM jobs over the next five to 10 years will be available in Maine to these students. We just need more of them statewide.

Maine’s future depends on this, as it is critical and strategic to future economic viability. If you were to think about the impact that STEM has on our daily lives, careers and economy, you would soon recognize how critical this situation is. Health care, banking, manufacturing, information technology, education, food, transportation, defense and tourism, to name a few, are all highly dependent on STEM.

The situation when it comes to STEM education in Maine is bleak. According to the 2012 Maine Innovation Index, a report of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, Maine ranked 42nd in the nation in 2008, with 24.19 science and engineering occupations per 1,000 workers compared to the nation’s 37.60 and New England’s 48.51.

In 2009, Maine colleges and universities awarded 4,151 degrees in the science and engineering disciplines, or 3.15 science and engineering degrees per 1,000 residents. This placed the state below the national level of 3.62 and the New England level of 3.71.

There is a growing emphasis on STEM education, but Maine’s national ranking of 38th in 2009 was lower than its 35th ranking in 2008, according to the 2012 Maine Innovation Index.

“Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018,” a 2010 report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, states, “A labor market of scientists and engineers is essential to creating a vibrant research, development and technology enterprise. There is a direct correlation between the percent of the labor force in science and engineering occupations and the growth and health of the innovation-based industries.”

Most companies want Mainers who are well educated in advanced technologies and want to pursue a career in Maine. USM is committed to providing that work force and understands that such an effort requires close collaboration with industrial partners.

Such partnerships enhance the learning experience and provide broad opportunities for students and faculty by connecting the university in meaningful ways to business and industry.

A key recommendation in the National Science Board’s 2007 “National Action Plan for Addressing the Critical Needs of the U.S. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education System” calls for improving the linkage between higher education and the work force.

Thus, USM set out on a mission three years ago to create the Pioneers Program to attract top STEM students and provide as much opportunity in terms of academics and experience as possible in order to educate and keep these gifted young people here in our state.

The Pioneers are students who have a drive to become Maine’s future job creators, industry builders, discovers of new technologies and teachers and scholars who inspire. These students have strength in math and science and are enrolled in a broad mix of STEM majors such as engineering, computer science, chemistry, physics and biology.

The Pioneers program offers full tuition scholarships, undergraduate research, mentoring, housing where students room and study together, building of professional networks, professional development seminars, internships and more.

As we head into the third recruiting season for USM’s Pioneer Program, we’re pleased to report that we have been fortunate to have recruited some of the brightest and well-rounded students for this program from all over the state. They are truly some of the best this country has to offer.

And USM continues to build its capacity to support deserving Mainers who want to study computer science, engineering, environmental science and technology management.

Thanks to a significant grant from the National Science Foundation STEM Scholarship Program, 19 students from Maine who meet academic and financial criteria are enrolled at USM this fall with scholarships of up to $5,000 per year per student. When fully implemented with USM support, the program will improve educational opportunities for up to 41 incoming USM freshmen and community college transfer students.

Michael C. Wing is drector of external programs and the Manufacturing Applications Center at the University of Southern Maine, and Jennifer Dean is director of communications and external affairs at the USM College of Science, Technology and Health.