Deirdre Connelly is president of North American Pharmaceuticals at GlaxoSmithKline.
Eight million U.S. jobs will become available in science, technology, engineering, and math-related (STEM) fields in just the next eight years. Yet 30 percent of all students--and half of all minority students--drop out of school before graduation. On average, 1 million students do not complete high school each year. This warrants asking: Who will get those quality jobs?
Among developed countries, the United States ranks 31st in math, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading. To make matters worse, there is a wide achievement gap between low-income and minority students and their peers. Policymakers in Washington are rightly focused on our nation's debt. We must reduce costs and get our fiscal house in order; but for the U.S. economy to grow and remain competitive, it is a national imperative that our children receive a quality education. This is a point that is often lost in the broader economic debate.
Any successful business leader will tell you that you don't drop your most promising product simply to cut costs; which is essentially what we as a nation would be doing if we fail to provide the educational opportunities needed to secure a prosperous economic future. We can and should seek creative ways to make our schools more effective in a way that accelerates learning, leads to higher graduation rates, and, above all, benefits students, society, and our economy long term.
I recently joined 35 of my peers in the country's private sector--business leaders with a vested interest in ensuring an educated, skilled workforce for the future--at a White House forum on education. We discussed a host of critical issues facing our nation's education system, but placed unique focus on dropout prevention. Collectively and individually, our organizations responded with significant financial support as well as the expertise of our organizations and employees.
Science, math, and technology are the backbone of the life sciences industry--which serves as a harbinger for U.S. economic growth in the future. Our success ultimately depends on R&D programs that encourage creativity and facilitate the accelerated discovery and development of new medicines. But the pathway to this success is not built just off the talents of our scientists and engineers who work daily to find new cures and treatments, but also by the men and women who build and maintain our cutting-edge research facilities, manage our operations, and engage with our customers.
While all students in the United States should have the opportunity to pursue a higher education, as a practical matter, not every student will. But from hard hats to lab coats, a core education that emphasizes math, science, and technology, and that leads to graduation from high school, will serve as critical success factors for students individually and for our nation as a whole.
From seeding the curiosity of the student who goes on to post-graduate work to become an accomplished scientist or physician to laying the groundwork for a high school graduate to pursue a career in logistics or health services, the skills derived from STEM education are the mission critical elements of the jobs of tomorrow. That is why for more than 20 years, our company has invested time, money, and volunteer efforts to ensure that children are exposed to science in everyday life, complete their education, and are encouraged to pursue STEM careers.
So who will get tomorrow's jobs? Students, parents, educators, policymakers, and employers must be mindful that, at a minimum, it will most likely be those who've benefited from a quality STEM education and graduated from high school. Working together, that's a goal worth supporting and one that should be achievable.