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  • America and Today's Graduates Face Daunting Challenges

    John Manzella, America and Today's Graduates Face Daunting Challenges

    With the season of graduation parties in full swing, I am reminded of my own high school graduation decades ago. This year, my third child recently walked across the stage in cap and gown to receive her diploma. The world she enters is a very different place than what I have experienced.

    Today, emerging trends and hyper-global competition are forcing American companies to redesign business models and delve deeper into their core competencies to create even more innovative products and services. In turn, more knowledgeable workers with deeper skill sets increasingly are in demand. But that’s not all.

    A growing number of workers are required to think critically, solve complex analytical problems and manipulate sophisticated new technologies. Yesterday’s jobs, like those requiring left-brained routine quantitative functions, will be automated or moved offshore.

    The changes today are structural in nature and no less severe than those that occurred in the early 1800s with the advent of industrialization. The shift from an agrarian society to an industrial economy compelled workers to leave farms in search of factory jobs and master an entirely new set of skills. Today’s demands placed on workers—which reflect an increasingly integrated world economy utilizing lightning-fast technologies—are even steeper.

    When I graduated from college, I viewed my competition as other Americans. Today, our children’s competition includes 1.3 billion Chinese, 1.2 billion Indians, and 4.2 billion others around the world struggling to get ahead. And since growth rates will remain relatively low due to global economic volatility and structural shifts, U.S. unemployment rates will remain elevated for years.

    What does this mean? Fewer but more mentally demanding jobs will be available for our brightest graduates. Unfortunately, many students and tremendous numbers of dropouts are unprepared for the level of competition ahead.

    Many politicians and parents are quick to blame teachers and administrators for failing high schools and graduation rates among the lowest in the industrialized world. But the real problem lies with a culture of indifference, where many students are unmotivated and disruptive, and create a hostile environment that makes learning difficult. What’s more, parents often don’t support our schools’ disciplinary efforts, further weakening an already impotent system fearful of racial and socio-economic divides.

    In turn, two levels of workers are becoming apparent: the highly qualified and the totally unqualified. And the costs are staggering.

    According to a McKinsey & Company report, “A persistent gap in academic achievement between children in the United States and their counterparts in other countries deprived the U.S. economy of as much as $2.3 trillion in economic output in 2008.” In turn, the United States is experiencing an emerging skills shortage even though unemployment hovers around 8 percent, the highest pre-recession rate since 1983.

    Although the short-term economic reality is challenging, America and our greatest resource, our children, can achieve future success if changes are made now.

    For centuries, nations with an abundance of natural resources had a competitive edge. Today, the only sustainable competitive advantage is the ability of workers to learn faster, apply new technologies better, and boost productivity more quickly than the competition. Here, the U.S. has been a beneficiary.

    For generations, our labor force has been the world’s smartest. And the results are evident: in 2011, U.S. innovation was responsible for nearly 109,000 utility patents. Plus, companies like Facebook, Apple, Google and Microsoft would not have emerged and prospered in other countries.

    Other essential elements creating America’s “secret sauce” include our system of free market capitalism, acceptance of immigrants, entrepreneurialism, and brilliant Constitution—factors that have promoted stability and created an environment empowering people to unleash their creativity to achieve their dreams. But as times change, so too must the United States.

    Moving forward, we must design new educational strategies that emphasize critical thinking over rote memorization. And since skills cycles have been reduced from years to just months, inexpensive but far reaching online learning programs sponsored by universities, community colleges and companies can help re-educate workers.

    Very importantly, our policymakers must ensure that our schools have the necessary resources to succeed, free districts from “teaching to the test,” and start thinking past the next election.

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