Norm Augustine is the former CEO of Lockheed Martin.
Here is a little quiz: What do Mozambique and the United States have in common? And should anyone care?
The answer: Of all the nations surveyed by the National Science Foundation, these two nations most closely match each other in the fraction of their college graduates who receive degrees in engineering (about four in 100), ranking them in the bottom 15 of the 93 nations studied, just ahead of Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Cameroon. So why care? The answer is because there is a good chance your next job, and that of your children and grandchildren, will be created by a scientist or engineer, and it would presumably be nice if that job were to be in the United States.
A number of studies have shown that 50 to 85 percent of the growth in America's GDP is attributable to advancements in science and engineering. And based on the experience of the past 50 years, each percent increase in GDP corresponds to an increase of about 1 million jobs. This is important, particularly when staring at a 15 percent real unemployment rate—as is the case in the United States today.
The Journal of International Commerce and Economics estimates that the 700 engineers creating the iPod were accompanied by 14,000 other workers in the United States and 25,000 abroad. Steve Jobs is said to have told President Obama that the reason Apple employs 700,000 people outside the United States is because it couldn't find 30,000 engineers in the United States.
Such is the current "leakage rate" in producing new engineers that to add one new Ph.D. in engineering in the year 2029 requires starting with a pool of 3,100 eighth graders. One reason is that, as reported by the College Board, 43 percent of college-bound high school seniors are not prepared to do college work. Another is found in a Washington Post article headlined, "How to Get Good Grades in College." A subhead read, "Don't Study Engineering."
So what is to be done? Six years ago the U.S. Congress, on a bipartisan basis (remember that?), asked the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine to answer that same question. A committee was established that consisted of 20 members—university presidents, CEOs, Nobel laureates, and former presidential appointees—that became known as the Gathering Storm committee after the title of the report it issued. The conclusion was that the single most important thing to do to enhance America's competitiveness was to fix the nation's K-12 public education system—with its 14,000 school districts, 49 million students, and over 3 million teachers. A few of the Gathering Storm committee's recommendations have now been implemented, but many have not. And in the meantime, another 7 million youths have dropped out of high school to face a bleak future.
It should of course not go unnoticed that a new education city costing $2 billion is being constructed; that a new technical university has been founded with an opening-day endowment greater than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has accumulated in its 150 years of existence; and that next year over 200,000 students will study abroad, mostly in the fields of science and engineering, often under government-provided scholarships. Also, government investment in non-defense R&D is set to increase by 25 percent over the next few years; a multiyear initiative is under way to make the country a global nanotechnology hub; and the world's most powerful particle accelerator is now in operation. Furthermore, a high-level commission has conducted a follow-on to the Gathering Storm study with the objective of creating more jobs at home.
The problem is that these actions were taken not by the United States, but rather by Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, the United Kingdom, India, Switzerland, and Australia, respectively. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has stated: "Scientific discovery and technological inventions have brought about new civilizations, modern industries, and the rise and fall of nations. … I firmly believe that science is the ultimate revolution." Backing words with actions, China today graduates more English-trained engineers than does the United States. In international standardized tests, the ranking of U.S. 15-year-olds has now fallen to 17th in science and 25th in math among the 34 participating developed nations. And it is not just America's average students who perform poorly; our top students are generally not competitive either. Just-released tests of eighth graders in U.S. schools show little improvement and Harvard's Program of Education Policy and Governance ranks the U.S. high school class of 2011 as 32nd in math among those of 34 developed countries. Fully 70 percent of our nation's youths are ineligible to serve in the armed forces because of mental, physical, or moral shortcomings.
In Bill Gates's words, "When I compare our high schools to what I see when I'm traveling abroad, I'm terrified for our workforce of tomorrow." Based on my own travels in 111 countries, I'd say he has it about right. America obviously has some great students, some excellent teachers, and some fine schools—but on average we are patently noncompetitive by global standards. In fact, today's younger generation is the first in our nation's history to be less well-educated than its parents.
So how then have we managed to maintain a GDP per capita six times that of the rest of the world and enjoyed a standard of living to match? One answer is partly by eating our seed corn—education and scientific research take a long time to replace. Another is by depending on individuals who come to America from other nations for their education and decide to stay, build new companies, and contribute to job growth in America. Immigrants have made enormous contributions in creating jobs for Americans, from Andrew Carnegie (Scotland) and Joseph Pulitzer (Hungary) to eBay founder Pierre Omidyar (France), Intel founder Andy Grove (Hungary), and Sergey Brin (Russia), who helped found Google.
Fully two thirds of the Ph.D.'s in engineering granted by U.S. universities in recent years have been awarded to foreign-born students, more of whom now say they are planning to return home—often with the forceful encouragement of our antiquated visa system that pushes them to compete against us rather than to stay and join with us. Jerry Yang, cofounder and former CEO of Yahoo!, says that "Yahoo! would not be an American company today if the United States had not welcomed my family and me almost 30 years ago."
The problem in K-12, for once, isn't money—the problem is how we spend our money. Only Switzerland and Luxembourg devote more per student than we. McKinsey & Co. calculates that if we could match Finland in K-12 educational achievement, America's GDP would be about $2 trillion larger, the financial equivalent of three "stimulus packages" every year. And, not unrelated, according to the Atlantic, a year in a New Jersey prison costs more than a year at Princeton (the latter tied for No. 1 in U.S. News's rankings of Best National Universities).
Sixty-nine percent of U.S. middle school students have math teachers without degrees or certificates in the field they teach. Meanwhile, when the writer, an aerospace engineer who tutored advanced calculus while in college, took early retirement from industry, he was proclaimed unqualified to teach eighth-grade math in any public school in his state due to the lack of teaching and union credentials. (He was subsequently invited to join the faculty of the Princeton School of Engineering.)
And what a time for the roof to leak, just when it is raining. America's higher education system, long the world's gold standard (the Times of London has said that the top five universities in the world and 18 of the top 25 are located in the United States) is now severely challenged by often-draconian budget cuts, tuition increases, and faculty layoffs. State funding of our public universities has reached a 25-year low, with budget reductions already imposed that average 24 percent (plus inflation)—and more is clearly in store. What is not too subtly occurring is a de facto privatizing of our public universities, with present and future students footing the bill—while foreign institutions seek to attract our most promising faculty members. The writer recently visited one foreign university that had added 14 new senior faculty members—of these, 13 came from the United States.
Ironically, in spite of these trends, there will most likely be no engineer shortage in America. Our firms will simply continue to move their engineering work overseas, along with their research laboratories and the new jobs thereby created across the employment spectrum.
So what is to be done? The answers are remarkably simple. The first is to bring the free enterprise system into K-12 education. That is, pay physics teachers more than phys ed teachers; pay great physics teachers more than average physics teachers and help mediocre teachers find new careers; and give students a choice of where they attend school—as has long been the practice in our higher education system.
As to our great research universities, all we need to do is give the same priority to the support of their academic programs that we give to their major athletic programs—perhaps even paying a Nobel laureate a sum that approaches what the assistant football coach receives.
Fortunately, implementing the above actions does not depend upon what China or anyone else does, it's only up to us. As Aeschylus put it over 2,500 years ago:
So in the Libyan fable it is told
That once an eagle, stricken with a dart,
Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft,
"With our own feathers, not by others' hands,
Are we now smitten."
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