How We Can Fix Education and the U.S. Economy, Too

One of the biggest threats to the future of the U.S. economy is that more and more of the U.S. workforce lacks the skills needed to fill the jobs being created in the 21st century.

Last year, a survey by ManpowerGroup found that 49% of U.S. employers are struggling to fill essential jobs, because they can’t find workers with the proper skills.

Amazingly, there are 3.8 million job vacancies in the U.S. Yet the Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are 11.8 million Americans looking for work and the U.S. unemployment rate is an unacceptably high 7.6%.

The crisis is having an adverse effect on individuals, communities, and businesses as well as the U.S. economy as a whole.

That’s why improving education is one of the themes President Barack Obama is focusing on in his series of speeches on the U.S. economy this summer.

“Technology and global competition, they’re not going away,” the president said at a speech last week at Knox College in Galesburg, IL. One of the cornerstones of a strong middle class, he added, is “an education that prepares our children and our workers for the global competition that they’re going to face.”

But it’s going to take more than talk to fix this problem.

Ed Rust, chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and CEO of State Farm Mutual Insurance, noted in a recent speech that little has been done about the disconnect between the U.S education system and in-demand job skills since the issue was first brought to light in the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk.”

“Thirty years later, our country is still at risk. There’s an ever-widening skills gap,” Rust said. “Learning has never been so important.”

A major re-think of U.S. educational systems, from kindergarten all the way through college, is long overdue. Unfortunately, the kinds of changes that would go a long way toward producing American workers with globally competitive skills are not being properly addressed.

The U.S. Economy Needs to Adapt to Global Changes

The days when the U.S. economy dominated the world are already over. Other nations, particularly in Asia and especially China, have growing middle classes that are increasingly educated and possess the skills needed to compete in the global economy.

Throughout the world, workers with higher skills are in more demand, while low-skilled workers continue to lose their jobs to automation.

Having the more advanced skills that are in demand is increasingly a matter not just of getting ahead, but of sheer survival.

And at the moment, the situation looks grim for the U.S. economy.

The most recent test results of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked U.S. 15-year olds 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math matched with other countries.

Those aren’t the rankings of a global economic leader.

Most embarrassingly, the U.S. did rank first in one category – spending per student. When all levels of education are included, the U.S. spends $15,171 per student per year.

That means Democrats have it wrong when they say we need more “investment in education.” Throwing money at the problem isn’t working.

On the other side of the aisle, some Republicans, such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, would like to eliminate the Department of Education altogether. That’s unlikely to help much, either.

What Should Be Done to Fix Education

While Washington is good for little more than the usual hand-wringing, other groups have studied this issue extensively and have come up with many practical ideas that would at least get U.S. education moving in the right direction.

One is the OECD, which offered some analysis in its “Education at a Glance 2013” report.

Rather than debate spending levels on education, OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria wrote, governments are better served by focusing on how the money is spent, and, even more importantly, on policies that “improve the efficiency and relevance of the education they provide.”

Gurria said the OECD’s studies have shown the countries that excel in education tend to emphasize not just foundation subjects such as math and reading, but “soft skills” like teamwork, communication and negotiation. They also work toward reducing dropout rates, teach the skills needed in the labor market at the secondary level, and develop vocational training for those less suited for college. 

Similar ideas have been developed by StudentsFirst, a Sacrament, CA-based education reform advocacy group founded in 2010 by former Chancellor of DC Public Schools Michelle Rhee.

StudentsFirst has a very detailed policy agenda that revolves around the basic themes of getting the best teachers possible in the public schools regardless of where those schoolos are located, spending public money more wisely (on educational tools and programs rather than bureaucracy)  and increasing parental and community involvement.

And Sajan George, the founder of Matchbook Learning, has developed a “blended” educational model that combines technology like netbooks, multi-media and personalized content with a traditional classroom where students learn alongside peers from a teacher.

The traditional side “leverages a physical teacher’s passion, presence, judgment and intuition,” George told Fast Company, while “the online curriculum can track, monitor, and adjust learning paths for each student, providing real-time feedback to the teacher on where and how to intervene with struggling students, as well as students that are progressing.”

Sadly, despite all the great ideas being developed by smart and daring educators throughout the country, getting change to occur at the federal and state level won’t be easy, as educational bureaucracies tend to resist change.

But the longer we wait to act on these ideas, the further the American workforce will fall behind the rest of the world, endangering the U.S. economy and putting Americans at a competitive disadvantage.

Here’s more on why employers can’t find people to fill critical jobs despite a chronically high unemployment rate.

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About the Author

David Zeiler, Associate Editor for Money Morning at Money Map Press, has been a journalist for more than 35 years, including 18 spent at The Baltimore Sun. He has worked as a writer, editor, and page designer at different times in his career. He's interviewed a number of well-known personalities - ranging from punk rock icon Joey Ramone to Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak.

Over the course of his journalistic career, Dave has covered many diverse subjects. Since arriving at Money Morning in 2011, he has focused primarily on technology. He's an expert on both Apple and cryptocurrencies. He started writing about Apple for The Sun in the mid-1990s, and had an Apple blog on The Sun's web site from 2007-2009. Dave's been writing about Bitcoin since 2011 - long before most people had even heard of it. He even mined it for a short time.

Dave has a BA in English and Mass Communications from Loyola University Maryland.

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