Before discussing this week's topic, I want to make it clear that I am an optimist about our country. I do not subscribe to the "gloom and doom" scenarios about America's future that dominate many books and opinion pieces. We are better off than Europe, which has slid back into recession; Japan, which remains mired in stagnation; and China, which has serious corruption problems and a housing bubble whose potential bursting could disrupt their economy as much as the bursting of ours did. We have the world's deepest, most resilient economy, with far more strengths than weaknesses.
But we do have a problem. Our educational system is not aligned with our educational needs. We are not producing nearly enough STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) graduates to equip us with the labor force we need in order to maintain our No. 1 position. A major U.S. chemical company recently built a research center in China, not because of "cheap labor" — research centers do not hire semiskilled workers at low wages — but because of a lack of Ph.Ds available in America.
It's not that we do not have enough Americans in college. It's that they are taking the wrong courses to equip them for the future we face. There is a huge mismatch between degrees and jobs, and I am not just talking about what some call "soft" degrees. Look at what is happening in a field once considered a certain route to a good, prestigious job — the Law. The Washington Post recently reported on current employment prospects for Law School grads.
In the Class of 2011 that graduated from law schools in the greater Washington area, 83 percent have student loan debts in the average amount of $121,000 but only 47 percent have any kind of job in the legal field, and some of those are working for as little as $15 an hour. Looking ahead, the Post estimates that between now and 2020 America's law schools will turn out 433,000 new lawyers to compete for an estimated 73,600 new jobs.
The demand for STEM grads goes the other way. Even at a time of high unemployment, with millions out of work, there are millions of STEM jobs going begging or overseas. In the coming decades the gap between America's high-tech job needs and available American talent will widen, creating job opportunities not in the hundreds of thousands but rather the tens of millions. Instead of running up large debts in student loans only to discover that there are no jobs available to them — leaving school with "a mortgage, but no house" — STEM graduates with a good academic record are assured of a good job offer at a good salary. That's true now and will be for decades to come.
To respond to the mismatch between educational preparation and real world needs, STEM must become a national priority, at every level. At home, where parents and students alike must understand that pursuing a STEM education can insure a sound financial future for both the student and the country. In elementary schools, where more math teachers must be hired (Half the public schools in New York City do not have a single one). In High Schools, where more students must be steered towards AP classes in STEM subjects. In college, where STEM recruitment programs and scholarships must be vigorously pursued.
I am an optimist. We need not be overwhelmed by the size of the challenge; other countries have their own problems and America can solve this one. But we must all get to it — now.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
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