State should invest in joint business-engineering hub at University of Washington Tacoma

Calvin Fatagi with Marine Vacuum Service cleans the University of Washington Tacoma emblem on the corner of South 19th Street and Jefferson Avenue.
Calvin Fatagi with Marine Vacuum Service cleans the University of Washington Tacoma emblem on the corner of South 19th Street and Jefferson Avenue. Staff photographer

Years before the University of Washington Tacoma’s underdog story began in 1990, its champions knew they’d have to fight at the state Capitol for every ounce of support each step of the way.

In the 1980s, they lobbied tirelessly to open a branch UW campus that serves placebound and working students in the South Sound. In 2001, they twisted arms in Olympia for funds to open an Institute of Technology. And in 2005, they fought to win full-fledged four-year status — a major turning point for UWT, which has awarded more than 22,500 degrees or certificates since its founding.

That same scrappy spirit is alive and well this year as UWT boosters press state budget writers to invest in a combined business-engineering hub on the downtown Tacoma campus. The school seeks $4 million from the two-year capital construction budget to design a 50,000-square-foot interdisciplinary building that would face Market Street.

The Legislature should approve the request as a down payment on a much larger one to follow in 2021. That’s when UWT plans to ask for $36 million to complete the joint project between the Milgard School of Business and the School of Engineering & Technology. (Getting it built is also predicated on raising at least $10 million in philanthropic donations.)

Say goodbye to the days of students from different majors being trained in separate silos. The UWT is embracing the concept of co-located facilities, where right-brained and left-brained thinkers attend class and solve problems together. That’s a good way to encourage entrepreneurial collaboration while making efficient use of limited space.

The building proposal is a big deal as UWT continues to flesh out its 46-acre footprint, bringing more energy to what was once a blighted Tacoma warehouse district.

It’s also critical to level the academic playing field; despite improvements, Pierce County still lags King County, the state and the nation in its percent of residents earning bachelor’s degrees or higher. In particular, an opportunity gap in engineering degrees needs to be closed.

Statewide, a shortage of mechanical and civil engineers is a point of concern. The number of annual job openings in these fields (3,157) is more than triple the number of graduates Washington universities produce each year (859), according to figures cited by the UW. Consequently, our state has to draw talent from other states and overseas.

To grow our own engineers, the UWT doesn’t merely want to erect a shiny new building, made of state-of-the-art cross-laminated timber. It’s also asking the 2019 Legislature for $1.81 million to set up new bachelor’s programs in civil and mechanical engineering. By 2025, they’d have a combined 180 enrollment slots and produce 90 graduates a year.

This could go a long way toward retaining more Tacoma-area youth who are grounded in high school STEM curricula and want to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering and math fields. Meantime, local two-year colleges are bursting with an estimated 600 engineering students who will need to transfer somewhere.

UWT has a strong foundation in computer engineering, and it added electrical engineering in 2017. Mechanical and civil programs are the next logical step.

Watching UWT grow up over the last three decades should cause Tacoma’s collective heart to beat with pride. The fact that 93 percent of UWT students hail from Pierce, Thurston and South King counties, and that eight in 10 alumni stay in Washington, make it an indispensable regional asset.

Creating an innovation hub that bridges the business and engineering schools would be an exciting way to usher in the next 30 years.