I’m departing from writing on my usual topics about eLearning trends for the moment as I heard a compelling broadcast on public radio yesterday by Vivek Wadhwa on the topic of globalization and U.S. competitiveness. Wadhwa is an Executive in Residence/Adjunct Professor for the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University and Labor and a fellow with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. I’ve provided links for Mr. Wadhwa at the end of this post.
Prior to my incarnation in higher ed, I spent a good many years in economic development at a time when world trade was all abuzz and our then Governor Rudy Perpich conducted the first Minnesota trade missions to any number of countries to court an exchange of goods and services. My 1990 master’s thesis was an Analysis of the Minnesota Challenge Grant Program, a public/private partnership between the McKnight Foundation and the Minnesota legislature. The program distributed funds to the rurally distressed regions of Minnesota who targeted specific industries (including Japanese and Swedish companies) to diversify Minnesota’s economic base and to promote that all important outcome measurement of the time: “job creation.”
So my ears still perk up when I hear anything about U.S. competitveness.The title of Wadhwa’s broadcast speech was “Rethinking the Globalization Debate.” I’ll warn any K-12 and post-secondary educational colleagues reading this, that what the Pratt School professor recommends may ruffle feathers of those deeply committed to STEM initiatives (in bold purple text below). Read on and see if you agree with him. I’m pretty sure it all makes sense to me, even if I risk going on record supporting some of his politically charged ideas. Still, desperate times call for innovative thinking, and without a doubt, he’s got “a” recipe. See what you think.
For those of you less aware of the K-20 STEM focus, here is a quick primer from Wikipedia:
The Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields are collectively considered core technological underpinnings of an advanced society. In many forums …the strength of the STEM workforce is viewed as an indicator of a nation’s ability to sustain itself.
Maintaining a citizenry that is well versed in the STEM fields is a key portion of the public education agenda of the United States of America. In 2006, the United States National Academies expressed their concern about the declining state of STEM education in the United States. Its Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy developed a list of 10 actions federal policy makers could take to advance stem education in the United States to compete successfully in the 21st century. Their top three recommendations were to
• increase America’s talent pool by improving K-12 science and mathematics education
• strengthen the skills of teachers through additional training in science, math and technology; and
• enlarge the pipeline of students prepared to enter college and graduate with stem degrees.
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Ok, got that? Now here is a synopsis of Mr. Wadhwa’s arguments for rethinking our present approach.
Everything written below except for the questions, comes directly or somewhat paraphrased from Wadhwa’s MPR broadcast April 2, 2008 (http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/04/02/midday2/)
Why are jobs going overseas? Do we have a shortage of engineers? -according to Wadhwa
Contrary to what many people think, the U.S. does not have a shortage of engineers. But the cost of engineers elsewhere is cheaper. Additionally, we have over a million skilled immigrants in these fields waiting for green cards. But if you’re a brilliant rocket scientist that graduates from an American institution, who happens to be from India, and you’ve filed for a green card, you may have to wait decades to get immigration approval. Why would anyone stay then, when opportunities abound back home? So what the U.S. has done is train hundreds of thousands of potential workers, teach them in our schools, train them in our companies, and then send them back home. This is “brain dead public policy.”
It is clouded by the illegal immigration issue, resulting in a forgotten 1 million people in line legally, who could help give the U.S. a strong competitive advantage through their entrepreneurial endeavors. Out of the $40 billion that goes into university research annually, the U.S. only gets about a billion in patent and license revenue out of it. We have a massive gold mine of ideas and knowledge in our universities that we’re not tapping into. If we’re talking about making the U.S. more competitive, we could invest more in mining that knowledge and creating spinoff companies from the universities. We could probably be the most competitive nation on the earth for the next 20 years just from the investment made in the last 2 – 3 decades. If we could do this, we’d attract thousands of skilled immigrant workers, who would start companies and hire that many more American workers. This could jump-start the American economy.
Is it a degree/education problem in the U.S.? -according to Wadhwa
MAs and PhDs in these fields are desirable, yes, but we can’t just assume that primary and secondary education in the U.S. will be enough for a globally competitive workforce anymore. First of all, 60% of people obtaining engineering PhDs from U.S. universities are foreign nationals. Once they complete their education, they leave the U.S. That may be good for filling up excess classroom slots, but this amounts to exporting our trained graduates. The same can be said of 42% of those receiving engineering Masters degrees from U.S. educational institutions.
If we are going to compete globally, we have to focus on educating our existing workforce and take them up the talent ladder. Let’s learn from China and India where private industry provides 6 to 12 months of training, and continues training, sometimes weeks at a time, to continuously improve skills.
Forget about investing in K-12; by the time the U.S. tries to fix it, it will be too late. Instead, redirect the energy and funds being used in the educational system and focus it on the 120 million existing workforce members. Let’s come up with new methods of educating them, improve their skills and take them up the ladder. This is what will make our workers and the U.S. competitive.
In what way do we need to rethink our assumption that we need to graduate more engineers and scientists? -according to Wadhwa
We don’t have a shortage of engineers and scientists; we just graduate them blindly without targeting where the jobs are needed. We don’t need 100,000 more computer programmers or 100,000 more scientists and engineers in general. I ask to do what? We need to understand where the talent is needed, in what specific fields. That’s the problem; we need to get off the rhetoric of graduating more engineers for the sake of competing with India and China and instead focus where the needs are. That would be a much more productive conversation.
Where does immigration fit into all of this? -according to Wadhwa
Both U.S. parties are in tune with globalization and the need for skilled immigration. However, there is much reluctance to deal with the undocumented worker situation. If we wait five years to fix the immigration system, the undocumented workers will still be here (they have no where to go), and the skilled immigrants will be long gone. Plus they will fuel the outsourcing of R&D to India and China even more, and we lose.
So, how do we do this? -according to Blicker
Well, that’s why I add the “..as if” to this blog’s name. Darn if I know. But I do know that U.S. companies aren’t adequately funded to provide the level of training and career laddering that Wadhwa suggests. Taking weeks off at a time to “sharpen the saw?” I remember a time in America when we had that luxury and companies could financially afford it. Heck, we can’t provide weeks of vacation and sick time, adequate health care insurance or family leave time, and we cut back on anything that doesn’t have a direct impact on the bottom line. We’ve taken “lean” to the “bleeding” edge.
We certainly haven’t valued anything more than just-in-time training for at least 15 years, if my own experience tells me anything. So yes, it’s a major public policy discussion to turn this ship around and redirect resources. I find the notion of a “pull” system refreshing (STEM education would be “push”). I think Wadhwa offers several concrete strategies whose time has come. However, I would opt for a “both – and” approach to STEM education and not write-off our K-20 STEM efforts just yet.
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