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Innovation Mandate: Is America's STEM Education Deficit Overblown?

In the second of our two-part series, we explore what needs to be done to solidify this nation's technical grounding

Rob Preston

December 17, 2010

3 Min Read

Hira, a university educator, nonetheless thinks education is only one of many factors influencing this country's global competitiveness. "It's really hard to argue against improving K-12 science and tech education," he said. But Hira puts more stock in training initiatives that extend beyond the classroom.

Vivek Wadhwa, a former entrepreneur and now a prominent researcher affiliated with UC-Berkeley, Duke, and Harvard, agrees. "We can't have the same old remedies from 20 years ago," Wadhwa says. "Yes, we need to improve the primary and secondary education systems, but even if we did that, it wouldn't make the U.S. more competitive." Companies, he argues, would still move abroad to get closer to their customers and access cheaper expert labor.

The U.S. government would do better, Wadhwa says, to subsidize workforce development--give companies tax incentives to train their people in the high-end skills that can't just be replicated more cheaply abroad, as Germany did in specialized, high-end engineering fields. India produces highly qualified technical workers, he says, not because its education system is first rate--it's not--but because top Indian companies built their own education systems. Infosys, for example, claims to run the largest corporate education facility in the world, with a capacity to train 14,000 people at a time on the latest technical and management skills. It's up to companies to pick those winning skills, Wadhwa says, not government bureaucrats.

Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of the university's Center for Digital Business, says the U.S. needs more education focused on identifying business opportunities created by IT. For example, technical specialists at companies are using text and data analysis to measure what customers and suppliers are doing--and will do--but few companies (he points to Harrah's Entertainment as an exception) "have a workforce that's equipped to make sense of this knowledge that IT is creating," Brynjolfsson says. "We need to have people with that quantitative expertise, but they also need to ask the right questions about what's right for the business, and that's a combination of skills that's rare." A wholly new "engineering and business curriculum" is needed, he says.

Wadhwa urges the U.S. to also invest in one of its key strengths: entrepreneurship, helping people start companies, and then helping small companies grow into midsize companies and midsize companies into large ones. He calls for corporate investments in entrepreneur boot camps, management training programs, and similar initiatives.

As I've argued many times before, the young people of this generation have a lot more on the ball than those of my day--they're more driven and dedicated overall even if there's no shortage of slackers among them, as there are among any generation. But this increasingly competitive, tech-based world demands far more of them than the world demanded of the Baby Boomers and even subsequent generations. Yesterday's education and training methods must be reevaluated and improved. Indeed, this country's economic future is on the line.

Rob Preston,
VP and Editor in Chief, InformationWeek
[email protected]

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.

Go to part one of this series:
Innovation Mandate: American Students Score 'C' In Math And Science

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About the Author(s)

Rob Preston

VP & Editor in Chief, InformationWeek

Rob Preston currently serves as VP and editor in chief of InformationWeek, where he oversees the editorial content and direction of its various website, digital magazine, Webcast, live and virtual event, and other products. Rob has 25 years of experience in high-tech publishing and media, during which time he has been a senior-level editor at CommunicationsWeek, CommunicationsWeek International, InternetWeek, and Network Computing. Rob has a B.A. in journalism from St. Bonaventure University and an M.A. in economics from Binghamton University.

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