Over the next few decades the American public will be faced with monumental and unprecedented challenges that will determine the future and prosperity of our society. Among these challenges will be our ability to compete and prosper in a global economy where, after over a century of American domination, America will face stiff and unrelenting competition from a number of global competitors. This new economic reality has several basic components, including new technologies enabling the free flow of capital and information instantaneously on a global scale; the increase in the quantity and quality of available human capital, expanding the global talent pool; and the increasing pace of technology and innovation as global economic drivers.
The challenges in central Illinois will mirror those of the United States. While we have prospered in recent decades, our regional economy has evolved and new economic drivers for the foreseeable future will include high-end manufacturing, healthcare, logistics and technology innovation. These industries will require increasing numbers of highly skilled and educated workers.
The common denominator at the global, national and regional levels will be the quantity, quality and economic alignment of our available and potential talent. Here lies the critical link between our economic development and education systems. Volumes of recent research and publications have given us a growing awareness of the importance of this linkage. One example is the publication America In the Global Economy: A Background Paper for the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, by Ray Uhalde, Jeff Strohl and Zamira Simkins. The following quote underscores the role of education in a growth economy:
“…Policy makers and economists strongly agree that a highly educated and skilled workforce is one of the indispensable keys to economic success, particularly in the kind of economic environment the United States will face for the foreseeable future. Studies confirm that education enhances labor productivity and hence, economic growth through improvements in worker skills and by upgrading the quality of human capital embodied in workers. Another crucial effect of education is that it boosts innovation by developing analytical skills and advancing creativity. As people learn-by-doing and experimenting they contribute to the pool of available knowledge by improving designs, processes, products and technologies. This process places the economy in a virtuous circle with continuously improving technological progress responding to incentives. As the new growth theory asserts, technological change drives economic growth. And education is a platform that supports the engine of growth.
An emerging challenge at all levels of American society will be to improve the quality of education to enable our workforce to compete economically in the face of increasingly educated workers from around the world. Despite the reality that huge numbers of young people are failing to meet basic competencies in our urban and inner-city schools, few of our suburban children can compete with the best-educated children from other countries. These problems are both systemic and cultural, and they persist amid the illusion that our middle-class children really have nothing to worry about. To compete and prosper economically in this new era, we will have to totally re-examine our collective values, assumptions, expectations, policies, investments and systems of education and talent development.
The real test of our collective will and priorities will be how we face this looming crisis. It will also be a test of those who have emerged as our leaders. IBI