America’s technology skills gap has been widening for decades, and author Gary Beach wants business and technology executives to understand why, and what to do about the consequences the country is facing now. His more than 30 years of experience in information technology, and his role as publisher emeritus at CIO Magazine, led him to write his recently published book, a project which stems back to 2007, when he was inspired by colleagues at a workforce development conference. Guided by research from industry, academia and government, and insightful conversations with CIOs across the country, Beach lays out recommendations for action to get the country’s technology skills back on track.
The book, U.S. Technology Skills Gap: What Every IT Tech Exec Needs to Do to Save America’s Future, details the widening gap in chronological form, with chapters that span from the mid-20th century — when the first indications of a skills gap emerged — to modern-day company initiatives to prepare students for the workforce. Beach notes that one of the most telling signs of the gap is from the most recent World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, which ranked the U.S. 52nd in mathematics and science.
“You can go all the way back to 1958, if not further … really back to 1945, when there were prominent warnings that our education system wasn’t on track,” Beach says, explaining that other nations since have formed better national educational strategies, such as South Korea, which recruits the upper echelon of college graduates to their teaching workforce.
“I’m a realist, and if you look at the data from the lens of a realistic viewpoint, it does suggest that America has ignored warnings for nearly 50 years,” Beach adds. “History has proven that if you ignore warnings, you’re going to pay for it. I do believe that we are entering a period of consequence.”
Better Math and Science Skills: A Matter of National Safety
Crucial steps to prevent the skills gap from widening further involve improving the math and science skills of America’s workforce — while they’re still in school. “The discipline of at least being proficient in science and math gives you thought patterns and processes and problem solving that are very relevant in in the workplace,” Beach says.
There should be collaborative efforts that focus on improving these skills for three main reasons, according to Beach. The economy will improve if students are able to keep up with the pace of skills that companies demand. He cites research from McKinsey & Co., which found in 2009 through assessing international math and science tests that the U.S. gross domestic product would be “16 percent larger” if American students matched the proficiency of Finland’s students in these subjects.
Another reason the U.S. needs to improve these core skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is to accelerate employment and drive workforce competition at home, rather than with other countries. Finally, as his third reason, Beach warns that U.S. national security could be at serious risk if America’s leaders do not take the appropriate steps to enhance math and science knowledge.
Says Beach: “I worry a lot about that third point, particularly as combat is now moving into a fifth plane, so to speak. There’s always been land, air, sea, and space. But now we’ve got cyberspace, and you see it every day. You see stories in the paper … if we don’t create a society that’s proficient in math and science skills and quickly move students through the education system so they can do things that they need to do advance and innovate and keep us safe, then I think America is going to face a consequence at a much steeper rate than we face now.”
He hopes that ultimately, his book is a wake-up call to business and technology executives. Beach explains that at the recent U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference, he heard from speakers, leaders and CEOs of major companies, who expressed concerns over finding workers to keep up with the software-driven revolution, as more lasers, computers/CAD, robots, and 3D printing systems become the driving forces behind business operations.
“I wonder, ‘Are CEOs going to have the patience for the STEM revolution in America, or are they going to source these jobs somewhere else?’ ” he says.
How America’s Leaders Can Take Action
Beach encourages business leaders to call middle-school and high-school guidance counselors and talk to them, as well as students who are interested in careers in the technology field, to explain what it takes to work in their business. “Above and beyond that, we need to teach our kids how to collaborate, how to communicate, how to think critically, and how to process incredible amounts of data,” says the author. “They also need to know how to leverage social media, and how to work in cross-cultural boundaries. These are the skills that we have to teach.”
He notes several effective measures already in place to help students, such as defense manufacturer Raytheon’s program, MathMovesU, which is designed to engage middle school students with interactive games and competitions. He explains that two effective efforts, Change the Equation and the National Science and Math Initiative, are good examples of success metrics that evaluate new ways of teaching science and math.
Beach also calls on education leaders to re-evaluate and update classroom learning settings. “I used a slideshow sequence in my presentation, and on one I showed Martin Cooper, who invented the first cell phone in 1973. The next slide show was of Steve Jobs with an iPhone, and that’s only in the space of 40 years,” he notes, alluding to huge advances in technology and miniaturization. “But my last slide is a picture of a classroom in 1913 and one in 2013, and they look the same, with rows, desks, and teachers in the front. We haven’t done a good job of transitioning, and technology has moved fast, but public education has not adopted technology at the pace that it is evolving.”
Both industries and educators should focus on the real-time training that industries need. Instead of turning to textbooks, students (and even teachers) who are learning in real time can get the most information that’s relevant and engaging to them.
Perhaps, most of all, Beach emphasizes that the U.S. needs to refocus education from teaching with tests and textbooks to teaching the mind. “We have to excite kids about education … let’s do what we think is right in terms of not only in proficiency in skills, but the other skills such as innovation and critical thinking.”
He encourages readers to think about whether America is falling off the invention/innovation cliff. If so, what can leaders do to help the situation? Please share your comments below.
The U.S. Technology Skills Gap: What Every IT Tech Exec Needs to Do to Save America’s Future is currently available on Amazon.com.