After spending several days with a large group of business executives in the heart of Appalachia, I came away impressed. They were all well-informed leaders with a strong understanding of the global economy, and each had a stranglehold on reality, coupled with a clear sense of the future. They also shared the common exasperation of significant personnel shortages. At a time of 10 percent unemployment, they had immediate unfilled openings for thousands of skilled workers.
Their estimated needs for skilled personnel by the year 2020 are projected to increase anywhere from 30 percent to 70 percent above today's levels, and their business growth is being stunted. They cannot find enough skilled workers in the occupations related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics necessary to fill this knowledge gap. They also emphasized that knowledge is at least a 70 percent factor in productivity in the 21st century environment of the competitive world economy.
Of the 60 million college degree holders in the United States today, only a third are in the highest demand fields: engineering; computers and mathematics; agriculture and natural resources; biology and life sciences; and the physical sciences. As a result, employment rates in these fields regularly exceed 95 percent, and salaries are high and rising. The traditional province of men, S.T.E.M. training and employment is increasingly populated by women, and the latter now constitute the majority of those employed in biology and life sciences. More than ever before, outstanding opportunities abound for everyone willing to do the work.
It is an unfortunate situation, therefore, that only a comparative few of our youngsters are choosing to make the effort to pursue opportunities for success in these high demand/high reward careers. Too often, parents allow children to choose the educational path of least resistance, resulting in another generation whose literacy, numeracy and career skills are even worse than many of their parents.
University programs in the S.T.E.M. specialties are often dominated by foreign students whose families understand the importance of hard work and academic discipline and whose value systems transcend the mediocre and ascend into the realm of excellence from the their earliest years. These are the same students who engage in a year-round learning regimen despite our public school systems that do not.
America's system of public education, including career and technical schools and two-year and four-year colleges, already has the capacity and the know-how to meet the demands of business and industry in the S.T.E.M. areas. The problem seems to be that our children are not being acculturated by their families to value and pursue the challenge of excellence in these high demand careers during their formative years.
One need only examine student achievement data in math and science in American schools to see that our youngsters shy away from learning in those subjects, especially compared to other nations whose families understand that the road signs to success are written in mathematical terms and scientific expressions and require lots of hard work every day of the year. Our schools absolutely have the means and methods to teach at high levels; too many students and their families, though, choose to simply avoid the effort involved in learning challenging new things.
Students in other countries who perform at higher levels are not innately or inherently any smarter or more capable than their American counterparts. Rather, they simply spend much more time and serious effort focused on the pursuit of higher levels of achievement and learning as a means of attaining lifelong success. They have learned that delayed gratification will be rewarded for a lifetime, while American families often trip over one another to indulge their children now and have little regard for lifetime learning.
Since the 1960s, the American national psyche of excellence and world leadership seems to have shifted away from the idea that we should encourage the mental and physical toughness to be the very best at all we do.
India, by contrast, now operates the equivalent of 13 MITs to help assuage the demand for S.T.E.M. specialists and China may be doing even more. These countries, and many others, are hungrier for success and supplying many of the skilled workers for American companies. Their people, though no smarter, are even more willing to outwork us in order become successful.
Americans have not, in my estimation, lost the will to win. We are, though, losing our will to do whatever it takes to outwork those who would outstrip us and eventually destroy our way of life.
In recent years, as China and others have focused on outdoing America, we have been more and more willing to make excuses for losing ground rather than doing what it takes to win.
This has not always been the case. America has led the world in virtually every measure of academic achievement and economic success over the years. In the late 1950s we overtook the Soviet Union in the space race. We produced more Nobel laureates than the rest of the world combined.
We know how to do this. We have always known how to do this. We used to have an insatiable national commitment to winning and we outworked everyone else, from the Manhattan Project to landing the first man on the moon.
Now that other nations are poised to overtake us with the intent of reducing America to second-rate or subservient status, the question we should be asking ourselves is simple:
Are we willing to make the winning choices and start working again?
(Wallace is a member of the graduate faculty at Muskingum University and a board member of the West Virginia Access Center for Higher Education.)