Saturday, November 5, 2011

Can America Compete in High Tech 21st Century?

The American Skills Gap: Can We Compete in High-Tech 21st Century?

America, we have a (skills gap) problem. We have 3 million unfilled, high-tech jobs available right now - enough to bring the unemployment rate down from 9% to 6%! The problem? We don't have Americans with the skills to fill them! How do we fix this self-inflicted problem?

We are in a high-tech, space-age 21st century that requires complex math and science skills, yet many of the U.S. students willing to undertake that difficult mission are dropping out like flies to pursue easier subjects that won't help us invent the future. This is why Americans don't have the skills to fill these 3 million high tech, high paying jobs. Are students lazy? Are the math and science programs at colleges too stale? Or is the problem a bit of both? What's wrong?

The issue is covered thoughtfully in this NY Times article: ?

The good news: a lot of students are trying to improve their math and science skills to be the engineers our industries need, but the drop-out rate is extraordinarily high. It appears that a large part of the problem is that the courses being taught are "dry lectures” -- guaranteed to put off even the best students. Recognizing this, some colleges have "refreshed" their courses to make them more interesting and provide more "hands on" work. To quote from the NYT article:

"Research confirmed in the 1990s that students learn more by grappling with open-ended problems, like creating a computer game or designing an alternative energy system, than listening to lectures. While the National Science Foundation went on to finance pilot courses that employed interactive projects, when the money dried up, so did most of the courses. Lecture classes are far cheaper to produce, and top professors are focused on bringing in research grants, not teaching undergraduates."

Clearly, schools need to do a better job teaching these complex subjects. According to the National Academy of Engineering: "“Treating the freshman year as a ‘sink or swim’ experience and accepting attrition as inevitable is both unfair to students and wasteful of resources and faculty time.” It's also a roadblock to America building a high tech future instead of shipping those jobs overseas, or employing foreigners in the U.S. who do have those valuable skills.

Another problem is that the schools do not have the high tech equipment necessary to train people, as pointed out in this MSNBC article:

But some help is on the way: For example, at Notre Dame, the students now do four projects. They build Lego robots and design bridges capable of carrying heavy loads at minimal cost. They also create electronic circuit boards and dream up a project of their own.

In light of the shortage of the new digital skills required to fill the new jobs in marketing and advertising, Rutgers Center for Management Development started back in 2010 a series of executive education programs designed to give the advertising and marketing people of today a solid grasp of the core concepts and tools of digital marketing management. This includes its Mini-MBA: Digital Marketing program. Rutgers is the first major university to offer a “mini MBA” program in digital marketing with the goal of training students and those needing to update their professional skill-set for the kinds of digital advertising and marketing jobs now in demand.

But much more needs to be done. The Republicans controlling the House of Representatives have cut Pell grant funding students need. Space programs have been cut. Students are jumping into English courses where it is easier to get high grades then a job.

Meanwhile, China and India continue to produce graduates with the engineering and math skills needed by American industry in the 21st Century. If the United States is going to lower our unemployment and compete in the global economy, it will take a combination of student effort, government funding and college course improvements to add fuel to our economic engine.

Michael Fjetland
Global American® Series
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