Few tech industry CEOs command more respect than SAS Institute's Jim Goodnight. The company he founded 32 years ago not only is one of the world's largest privately held software companies--a bastion of independence in a sector gone M&A bonkers--but it's also a perennial mainstay among the country's "best companies to work for."
What's Goodnight's passion, besides building world-class business intelligence software? A recurring subject of this column: education. For Goodnight, this country's economic and social future hinges on its ability to prepare today's kids for the tech-centric rigors of tomorrow's workforce.
He and his company are trying to do something about it by, among other initiatives, developing teaching and school administration courseware, helping seed schools with computers and other interactive learning tools, starting a prep school that ingrains those tools, and pushing for education reforms at the state and national levels. Of course, some of those initiatives--like creating a master's program in analytics at North Carolina State, where Goodnight earned a Ph.D. in statistics--serve SAS's long-term business interests. But there's no quibbling with the vision.
The way Goodnight sees things, the nation's declining high school graduation rate (now estimated at around 70%) and declining proficiency in math and science (U.S. 15-year-olds ranked in the bottom half of industrialized countries in the most recent OECD tests) are just two indicators of the creeping decline of our global competitiveness. High school dropouts have an 8% unemployment rate, make $1 million less over the course of their careers than college grads, and account for 70% of the prison population, at least in SAS's home state of North Carolina. "These kids are doomed to failure pretty much the rest of their lives," Goodnight said in an interview with me last week.
In 1957, he noted, the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik was the wake-up call the United States needed to get its act together on funding education and technology programs, the genesis of NASA, and later Silicon Valley and broader economic expansion. "We don't have a warning like that anymore," he said. "We're slowly, slowly losing our competitiveness as a country."
So what's the solution? Goodnight, who doesn't mince words, also resists pat answers. Despite the triumphs of NASA, big government programs tend to become moribund bureaucracies. In Goodnight's view, it boils down to getting more kids to excel beyond high school, especially in math and the sciences, and allowing the brightest technical minds from abroad to enter and stay in this country.
On the former front, Goodnight sees more potential for education reform and progress on the state and local levels, where SAS has had success, than at the federal level. There, he argues, politicians care more about primping for the party than advancing legislation that serves the national interest (witness last week's partisan squabbling on the House floor over the $700 billion bailout package).
On the latter front, Goodnight has no patience with policy makers and other interests who oppose bringing more smart, talented people into the United States. He said 60% of technical doctorates now awarded in the United States go to foreign nationals, many of whom are told after graduation that they can go innovate elsewhere. Keeping them here isn't just a matter of economic competitiveness: How secure will this country be, Goodnight asked rhetorically, when we have to buy missile and satellite parts from China, where they'll not only be manufactured but also designed should current demographic trends persist?
For those cynical of Goodnight's motives, consider the source. SAS's record as a model employer is well established. More than most companies, it can pick and choose whom it hires; it's not fishing for cheap labor. So if its CEO worries about a U.S. shortage of technical talent and expertise, he's got cred on the issue not so much as an employer and vendor with a vested interest, but as a concerned citizen. What say you?
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