Big corporations think the United States can stay one step ahead of the rest of the world, especially China, in manufacturing and engineering--as long as it stays innovative.
"I'm not sure that [China] is doing such a better job than we do," Fred Guterl, executive editor of Scientific American, told a group of manufacturing executives at today's MAKE: An American Manufacturing Movement conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Council on Competitiveness, a consortium of CEOs dedicated to keeping America in the top manufacturing spot worldwide.
David Arkless, president of corporate and government affairs at ManpowerGroup, a firm that helps corporations find top-flight employees, agrees.
"The U.S., on every scale, is better at innovation and better at entrepreneurship than the Chinese. But the Chinese are working fast on that," he says. He says many North American firms don't understand that they still lead the world in designing and manufacturing new products. "China is trying to change from, 'Hey, we're good at copying your stuff and making it cheaper,' but they're kind of struggling with that right now. The U.S. has a chance to stay one step ahead."
In order to maintain its advantage, the Council on Competitiveness released an 84-page report highlighting five solutions to challenges the organization believes America faces.
According to the report, "Americans are makers--a nation of tinkerers, inventors, craftsmen, and entrepreneurs ... We remain deeply concerned that the United States has yet to understand and fully respond to the challenges affecting the American economy."
Among these perceived challenges: overregulation that limits innovation and scaling up; expanding U.S. exports and reducing the trade deficit; preparing a skilled workforce that can meet the job needs of the future; enhancing worker and factory productivity; and enhancing supply chains with clean and cheap energy.
The report outlines a host of solutions--many of them involving reducing regulation and international taxes, forming public-private partnerships with school systems to help foster early interest in engineering, and loosening immigration laws for highly skilled foreigners.
Says Williams of foreign students who graduate from American universities: "We should staple a green card to their diploma." Arkless says it's absurd that universities in the United States educate the world's brightest students and then America allows them to leave. "What is it about a system that trains foreign students really well and then encourages them to leave?" he says. "I don't get it."
But the United States can't rely solely on foreign talent, says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation's largest teacher unions. Schools need to foster interest in science and engineering at an early age. That starts with having well-educated elementary school teachers, she says.
"Elementary school teachers are expected to be jacks of all trades. There are some baseline scientific experiments they'll learn to do, but they're not scientific [people]," she says. "If you're one step ahead of the kids, you're not going to inspire creativity and ensure interest in science and engineering.