Industry Must Do its Part to Educate the Workforce of the Future

If companies want workers down the line, they should help educate them.

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Howard D. Elias is President and Chief Operating Officer, EMC Information Infrastructure and Cloud Services. 

Innovation and productivity are the two key enablers of every successful economy, both of which rely on skilled people working in jobs that fuel a nation's long term health and wealth. America has always been blessed with innovative and productive people, but today uncertainty is dampening that spirit. That is because the issue of jobs is very real for the more than nine percent of unemployed, for the underemployed, for recent or soon-to-be college graduates looking for their first starting role-–anyone for whom the promise of a good-paying, personally satisfying job seems much less certain than it did just five years ago. 

But from another perspective, jobs are also an issue for U.S. employers that have a need for talented employees but find an insufficient supply of candidates with the requisite skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to help them compete in the digital world. Though it is a global economy, one requiring a globally talented workforce, America plays a critical role as a primary innovator and engine of growth in the 21st Century, and STEM education is at the core of what it will take to fuel America's innovation engine. 

Recognizing this situation, government, private enterprises and leading civic organizations and foundations are calling for graduating more engineers from American colleges and universities, and with good reason: STEM competency is critical to improving American employment and income. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports unemployment in the technology sector at only 3.8 percent, with 7 percent to 13 percent job growth for engineers. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economics and Statistics Administration reports that STEM jobs increased at a pace three times faster than other jobs over the last three years. In an August 31 interview with New America Media, Dr. Alicia Abella, executive director of the Innovative Services Research Department at AT&T Labs summed up the issue stating, "The highest growing number of jobs is in the technology field, and there is more demand for those jobs than there is supply. We're going to need 800,000 more [U.S.] jobs by 2018 in computer technology alone. In the last three years we've only graduated 24,000 in those sectors and that's not nearly enough." 

As a technologist and employer, I understand well the challenge described by Dr. Abella. Paradoxically, with unemployment levels at their highest in 30 years, I and my peers have positions we are challenged to fill. Why? Because the skills we need are highly specialized; they are new skills that didn't exist just a few years ago, with titles like cloud architect and data scientist, reflective of the pace of innovation in today's digital economy. 

There is a long and rich history of industrialists investing in the creation of new schools and innovative curricula with the specific purpose of training students able to meet the needs of growing industries. Some of our country's most renowned educational institutions, such as Carnegie Mellon University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Purdue University, and many others exist today because of such foresighted investments. Successful companies in today's STEM-focused industries like high technology, biotechnology, environmental technology, and energy must once again foster close working relationships with educational institutions, sharing vision and collaborating to create programs designed and equipped to train the workforce of the future, for the future. 

To help satisfy our thirst for talented people in the short term, we can and do spend a great deal of time and money training technology professionals to master the specialized skills that are needed to provide the technologies and services our customers expect of us. At EMC I have overseen the development of a growing worldwide academic alliance that works with more than 600 colleges and universities in more than 40 countries across the globe to train people interested in acquiring specialized and sought after competencies. Such approaches may help a single organization, but they are not nearly enough to make a difference on a national scale.