America's Future Workforce and the Role of Education

In December, Lucy Friedman, President of TASC, published a blog about a significant survey involving 126 CEOs that examined skills in the U.S. workforce – or lack thereof – specifically in the area of STEM. The survey was sponsored by the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of leading U.S. companies, and Change the Equation, which works at the intersection of business and education to ensure that all students are STEM literate. The findings made a strong case not just for education initiatives in this area, but for the business community’s involvement and support of these initiatives. 

  • 98% of CEOs surveyed say the skills gap is a problem for their companies.
  • 60% of job openings require basic STEM literacy, while 42% require advanced STEM knowledge.

The biggest skills gaps seem to be in advanced computer and quantitative knowledge, with 60% of the CEOs reporting problems in finding qualified applicants.  38% say at least half of their entry-level applicants lack basic STEM literacy.

The report offered insight into addressing the skills gap, with internships being the most effective activity or program (70%) as well as apprenticeships (37%). Assisting educational institutions with curriculum development (54%) and classroom instruction (21%) were also valuable. 

Lucy concluded her blog by noting that it’s clear that corporations recognize the need for investing in the development of a future workforce, and this investment needs to happen long before students graduate and enter the job market.”  I couldn’t agree more.

Let me underscore that neither Lucy nor I perceive the core goal of education as being narrowly pre-professional.  But I personally love the way the incandescent, incomparable Cathy Davidson defined “vocational education” in a blog entry she wrote late last June about the initiative she moved from Duke to CUNY to start:

The Futures Initiative is based on the idea that all education is "vocational" in the broadest sense that education should prepare us for the vocation of leading better, richer, more satisfying, responsible, joyous, and productive lives (in whatever form). Education should be about meeting tough challenges and exploring novel opportunities--coupled with introspection, curiosity, creativity, and social justice too, and all on the way to mastering content and beyond. 

These learning principles are not intended to displace traditional learning.  They may.  But that's not the point.  Rather, they pertain in, around, above, and beyond traditional education--no matter whether one is preparing to be an engineer or an artist, a historian or an accountant.  We need to learn how and when to take chances--and how to recover when we make mistakes. In a world changing rapidly, in many different directions at once, and where precarity can sometimes seem overwhelming, expertise can become outmoded quickly.   How to adapt and change when it is appropriate and how to be a leader and a maker of change (often in alliance with others) in the right circumstances can be an invaluable survival skill.”

Davidson goes on to discuss the degree to which the internet has changed everything since the Mosaic browser launched in the spring of 1993 yet to express concern about the degree to which it HASN’T transformed education, higher and K-12: 

“While work and life have changed radically as a result of this new technology, it is not clear how much formal education has rethought its basic structures in order to prepare students.  How much and how deeply have we really reconsidered and transformed our Industrial-Era educational principles, rooted in Taylorist labor practices:  standardization, regulation, bureaucratization, compartmentalization of knowledge, hierarchies of expertise, regulation of credentialing, machine-gradable multiple-choice testing, and so forth.  Digitizing the status quo isn't enough.  Neither is simply learning about technology.  We also need to be learning (both critically and creatively) through and with relevant technologies and thinking deeply about new global economic, labor, and market conditions (including income inequality and, closer to home, the adjunctification of the professoriate) within these contexts. “

She posits that higher ed has to change before K-12 can:

“The Futures Initiative is also based on the assumption that until higher education changes, there can be no significant, substantive change in K-12.  No responsible parent will tamper with a child's chance at a productive future. Until higher education changes its methods and expectations, its assessment and credentialing practices and its legacy disciplines and reward systems, K-12 cannot and will not change. "

Her logic is compelling, and yet I'd posit we have to work on parallel paths.  We simply can't afford to wait.