Sleepwalking schools are failing U.S. industry

If Rip Van Winkle were to awaken today after a 200-year nap, he would no doubt be stunned by the dramatic changes that had taken place – busy freeways, modern hospitals, humming factories and all the panoply of modern entertainment. But if he walked into a public school he would feel right at home – the same rigid class structure of children in straight-backed chairs and teachers at...
By John Engler, President National Association of Manufacturers September 1, 2006

If Rip Van Winkle were to awaken today after a 200-year nap, he would no doubt be stunned by the dramatic changes that had taken place %%MDASSML%% busy freeways, modern hospitals, humming factories and all the panoply of modern entertainment. But if he walked into a public school he would feel right at home %%MDASSML%% the same rigid class structure of children in straight-backed chairs and teachers at the head of the class giving lessons from blackboards and text books.

Education in the United States is bogged down in a time warp while the rest of the world progresses, and our educational failings pose a serious long-term threat to our way of life. According to the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, recognized as β€œThe Nation’s Report Card,” 46% of high school seniors tested below even a basic achievement level in science. Yet science, along with math, engineering and other critical vocational disciplines, is an essential building block of industrial and technological achievement.

Over the past century, America’s economic growth has been built upon our leadership in innovation %%MDASSML%% a constant stream of exciting new products, processes and business models. U.S. manufacturing, which accounts for 60% of private sector research and development, has led the world into the modern age. It’s sparked an era of rapid progress on many fronts and spurred growth in nearly every sector of the economy.

As a result, the U.S., despite the most intense global competition in history, remains the world’s dominant manufacturing power. There is no such thing as a great world power without a manufacturing base, and thanks to our innovation leadership, we still have the world’s best.

But our leadership in manufacturing innovation is not a birthright, and our foreign competitors are doing everything in their power to wrest it from us. Only a few years ago, manufacturing accounted for a much larger share of innovation than it does today.

The U.S. share of worldwide high-tech exports is in a 20-year decline, from 31% in 1980 to 18% in 2001. India and China are graduating more engineers than we are. Meanwhile, U.S. manufacturers are wrestling with a serious shortage of qualified workers that undermines our ability to innovate and compete. It is highly-skilled workers that make possible the innovation which drives our economic growth, spurring higher productivity, higher wages and a higher standard of living.

Our education system is predicated upon an assumption that our best and brightest students should pursue four-year academic degrees, but not everyone is into Elizabethan poetry and philosophical discourse. As a result, most high school graduates have little awareness of career opportunities in manufacturing because educators and parents are channeling them toward traditional liberal arts degrees.

We need to do a much better job of synchronizing our educational system with the opportunities that abound in the workplace. This will involve greater stress on science, technology, engineering and mathematics while raising awareness among educators and students about the diverse career opportunities in manufacturing. The world will always need manufacturing and skilled manufacturing workers.

The question isn’t how manufacturers will foster continued economic growth and innovation, but where. If we want to keep that manufacturing genius in America %%MDASSML%% and we do %%MDASSML%% we need to take aggressive action to ensure a highly-qualified 21st century industrial workforce.