“America cannot lead in the 21st Century unless we have the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world.”
— President Barack Obama, April 24, 2009From the late 19th Century well into the second half of the 20th, America reacted to successive steam, electricity and combustion engine revolutions with the emergence of the “factory system,” a new economic platform that brought a continuous adaptation to lower costs of organization, plant design, product manufacturing, distribution, and logistics.
Along with that new economic platform came one of the most fundamental educational revolutions in American history — the high school movement. America’s children and young people were taught skills — trade, managerial or professional — that were most in demand.
As we move further into the 21st Century, the combination of enormous increases in computing power, the Internet, and new technologies represent changes in costs and factors of production every bit as substantial as — and even more pervasive than — the industrial revolution of the past.
Changes in technology are creating new waves of entrepreneurship and industry disruption across much of the economy; in virtually every sector, new entrants are out-competing the incumbents. The Internet has also powered the decentralization and disaggregation of enterprise, and exposed the vulnerability of large integrated companies with command and control management systems and cultures that are inefficient, expensive and resistant to change.
As this new business system evolves, so, too, will the very nature of jobs, work, and careers. The organization of work that was the centerpiece of our industrial economy for 100 years is disappearing. Like it or not, “jobs” in the traditional, 40-hour, 5-day-week sense will no longer be the way we define a “healthy economy.”
Looking ahead, three phenomena are likely to become more central to our lives: part-time assignments, portfolio careers, and pervasive entrepreneurialism.
– In the “gig economy”– more “work” will consist of short term assignments and careers composed of a bundle of such assignments over a lifetime.
– Many people will carry out more than one of these short-term assignments at any given time, and while not everyone will want to manage a “portfolio” of assignments, many will see it as the way to make the most of their talents.
– Increased entrepreneurialism and personal responsibility will become more important as work becomes less rote, more unpredictable, and fast changing.
Given the growing challenge, just how well is our nation meeting it? The answer is: not very well. There are some bright spots, to be sure: high school graduation rates are up, reaching a record high of 81 percent. In 2013, just under two-thirds of students who graduated from high school went on to enroll in college. But there is more to the story, and it is not nearly as good.
About one-third of the 1.8 million high school students who took the ACT exam in 2013 were not ready for first-year college courses in core English, reading, math or science courses, according to U.S. News and World Report. Just 26 percent reached the college readiness benchmarks across all four subjects. Further, America’s young adults are coming up short on the skills needed to compete in the global, technology-rich economy, a report this week from Educational Testing Service reveals.
How can it be true that we are graduating more young people from high school and college, and yet they don’t come out possessing adequate skills?
Here’s what the ETS research tells us:
– Even America’s best performing and most educated millennials — those who are native born and with the greatest economic advantage in relative terms — do not perform better their international peers
– Young Americans possessing a four-year bachelor’s degree scored higher in numeracy than their counterparts in only two countries: Poland and Spain. And those whose highest level of educational was high school or less scored lower than their counterparts in almost every other country. Shockingly, our best-educated millennials — those with a master’s or research degree — only scored higher than their peers in three countries.
It is clear that we are failing to prepare our citizens for the demands of the New American Economy. As a consequence, redefining true educational attainment — the acquisition of knowledge and skills and the nurturing of key dispositions (rather than merely conveying paper credentials) — must be at the top of our national priorities. That means that for educational attainment to grow and yield results, we must devote intense concentration of effort and resources to our youngest.
Investment in sustained and targeted early childhood education– beginning with preschool and lasting long past–offers potential for great rewards: These children who receive additional, focused teaching could see an increase in lifetime income worth 10 times more than the cost of that education, according to Brookings research. Such an increase would go a long way toward closing the income gap between families at the bottom of the economic ladder and those above them.
Our education system has long been predicated on the belief that the more schooling one has, the better one’s prospects for long-term employment (“a job”), higher income, and a better standard of living. The trouble is that the dynamics of the New American Economy suggest that narrative may no longer be true.
So not only must we make a major commitment to early childhood education and development, we also have to take a hard look at what is going on — or not — in our schools, K-20 and beyond. In K-12, it would be utter insanity to retreat now from hard-fought gains in the areas of higher standards and greater accountability. It would also be crazy not to provide the resources necessary to recruit, train, and support a higher quality teaching force, and to greatly improve the practice of school leadership. Nor should our institutions of higher education be allowed to go on without answering for the quality of their products.
We also need to look at those people who are no longer in school — whether they are graduates or not — and who will either benefit or suffer in the New American Economy. Everything we know about technology tells us that changes in necessary workplace skills will only multiply and accelerate.
As a nation, we must invent or cultivate institutions and means that provide lifelong learners with the ability to continuously update their skills, including through a wide variety of mini courses that allow for certification and authentication of newly acquired skills.
A lot has to happen to bring about the policy changes above. And none of it will be easy, especially in the highly polarized and largely dysfunctional political environment of today. The New American Economy will not be a blue one, a red one or a purple one. It won’t have a right wing or a left one. But like all economies, it will produce winners and losers. The challenge before us is to produce vastly more of the former than the latter. That will be tough, but not impossible — unless, of course, we choose to do nothing.
Bo Cutter is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt institute and director of its “next American economy” project. He formerly served as Deputy Director of the National Economic Council under President Bill Clinton and as Associate Director of OMB during the Carter Administration.
Les Francis is a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs & communications consultant with a long career in education. He served as Deputy Assistant and Deputy Chief of Staff in President Jimmy Carter’s White House. He was also Executive Director of the DNC, and later of the DCCC.
Article was first published in Real Clear Education