Reengineering our Economy By Re-engineering our Education

Posted: November 22, 2012

Now that elections are over, we need to begin a real dialogue over how to rebuild the fundamentals of the American economy. While there is no denying that tax policy creates incentives for businesses, it is not a cure-all. The notion that the Chinese laborer has ruined manufacturing in this country is short-sighted and misguided.

The truth is far uglier – we don’t have enough workers with the right skill set to produce a breakout modern economy.  A modern economy demands workers with engineering and programming skills and America is not producing enough of them. This matters tremendously as we dig our way out of this economic downturn and fight to maintain an edge in the global marketplace.

Boeing, the world’s leading aerospace company, is a prime example. Last month a Leeham Co. analyst was quoted saying, “I don’t think it matters what new airplane comes along; Boeing has a shortage of engineers.” This means Boeing cannot benefit from new opportunities to build new planes, which will subsequently affect thousands on non-engineering jobs. In other words, engineers have a ripple effect throughout the economy.

Today the US manufactures more than it did in 1979; we just employ fewer workers to do so. More so than China, technology has redefined the landscape, robotics has replaced many manual workers and workers who remain in manufacturing are mostly engineers and programmers. US companies can’t hire enough of these workers without looking outside our borders. Steve Jobs famously noted that Apple factories needed 30,000 skilled engineers, something US educational institutions aren’t producing.

Nearly every device we use today relies on programming, yet if we are graduating fewer computer programmers than in 1986, how are we going to enjoy a strong competitive economy in the future? Occupy Wall Street brought to light the fact that many college graduates were out of work and the reason is, as a report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce points out, that “while going to college is undoubtedly a wise decision, what you take while you’re there matters a lot, too.”

The question in Washington and elsewhere ought to be, “How do we provide the US economy with the engineers and programmers necessary to keep America competitive and keep well paying jobs here?” We have an education system that produces lots of degrees, but unfortunately not the right ones. Today too few students elect to learn these skills and opt instead for a degree in psychology or communications. Even worse, too many students arrive at college requiring remedial studies.

Yet no one seems to talk about this national tragedy.  As a nation we need to expose students early on to these fields and make their study as mandatory as Math and English. Having sixth and seventh graders learn basic programming in today’s world should be as commonplace as learning English. In the 1800’s schools would teach skills like knitting and by age 10 boys were expected to decide on a trade. Our modern world requires engineering and programming and it is our obligation to expose all students to these fields.

Today, unless someone is among the self select few who seek out computer coding as a child, the first time most students are exposed to basic computer programming is in high school. And that is assuming they elect to take such a course. Studies demonstrate that for fluency, languages are better learned at an early age and that after puberty accents start. For this reason, exposing all students early on will help create a natural acclimatization to skills that will benefit them for the rest of their lives and prepare them to engage with a modern economy. The federal government should make this a national priority, giving all students, irrespective of socioeconomic standing, an opportunity to participate in tomorrow’s economy. Only this way can we ensure that the US remains competitive and retains its global leadership position.

Daniel Odescalchi is President of Strategic Advantage International, a consulting firm. He recently assisted Newt Gingrich in his 2012 Presidential bid and the People Party of Somalia. He coauthored “The Handbook of Political Marketing.” DANIEL@SAIPR.COM

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