In December 2006, the new Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce issued their report: Tough Choices or Tough Times. The report outlined a number of challenges that our country is facing as we seek to compete in the global knowledge economy. The report also links the skills and education of the American workforce with our ability to prosper economically in the 21st century. It provides valuable insight as we examine the future, our education, workforce and economic development systems. More importantly, the report poses major challenges for our culture and political system and how we will prioritize our private and public resources.
Global Economic Challenges
The American economy has seen drastic structural shifts with the growing reality of the global economy. The rise of India and China as global economic powers, coupled with rapidly changing and evolving information technology, will have a profound impact on the economic well-being of Americans. As multinational corporations begin to utilize the global talent pool, countries like India and China pose a substantial double threat with large populations of workers willing to work for substantially lower wages and increasing numbers of highly-educated engineers, scientists, technicians and analytical thinkers. As a result, both low-end manufacturing operations and high-end technical functions have migrated to lower-cost countries. This new phenomenon poses an unprecedented challenge for the United States. In order for the U.S. to effectively compete in this new environment, we must carve out a unique economic niche. This new niche will depend on our ability to innovate new products and technologies in increasingly faster cycles. In order to do this, America will need a workforce of educated, creative and analytical thinkers. Unfortunately, the education pipeline that produces our workforce is not producing the numbers of engineers, scientists, technicians and creative and analytical thinkers necessary to support this new economic paradigm. As a matter of fact, enrollments of U.S. students in the critical fields of engineering, math and science have seen a decline in recent decades.
Systemic and Cultural Challenges
The report also paints a compelling picture of the radical changes needed to produce greater numbers of skilled and educated workers that can compete globally. Our education and training systems were built for another era when most of our workers needed only basic skills and education to function in a manufacturing-based economy. The report recognizes the stark reality that our current education and training systems cannot meet the challenges of the 21st century. It further recognizes that they cannot be fixed in their present forms and must be totally redesigned. In order to do this, we will have to re-examine our cultural values and policy priorities. These will include how we recruit and develop our teachers, our assumptions on the capabilities and our expectations of all students. In addition, it will include our ability to find effective teaching and learning methodologies for all students and how we develop, measure and reward creative and innovative thinking and analysis. Our ability to motivate families and students to work hard, excel and take tough courses and our ability to assist current workers to improve their literacy and continuously develop their skills while they are employed, will be necessary.
In future issues, we will explore these challenges and the Commission recommendations in greater detail. IBI