The Observer: Putting Common Sense Back Into The Equation
The United States must invest in math and science education, Lou Bertin says -- and park its political baggage.
This is a piece about how a couple dozen donated laptops and a pair of straightforward, decidedly unglamorous applications trumped FEMA; a few companies throwing billions of dollars of investment and development capital around; lots and lots of kids who may be functionally literate but are seemingly unequipped to function in today's economy, much less tomorrow's; and jobs leading to civility -- if not yet to outright peace -- in a nation that's had far too much civil warfare.
Confused? So am I. But that's how I feel as I contemplate the reports detailing the above developments -- some absolutely encouraging and some utterly discouraging -- as one year ends and another is aborning. That those disparate stories can be made to fit together in a single narrative is in its own way a parable of sorts for where we stand and, far more important, where we ought be headed.
First off, the tale of the unglamorous apps, the loaner laptops, and FEMA's prescription being tossed on its ear. As Charles Babcock reported recently in InformationWeek, the recovery efforts in New Orleans received a major boost when even limited power was restored and the city's Department of Safety and Permits was able to restore use of its Accela Automation permit- and property-management applications, combine those with mapping software from ESRI, and run the pair on 25 donated GPS-enabled Panasonic Toughbooks. It took 50 inspectors 10 days to assess the damage to better than 123,000 homes, but that sure beats what FEMA was calling for: a 90-day effort involving 100 inspectors. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but in this case, common sense was the midwife. When, oh when, will we learn that we've allowed the very agencies we entrust with our protection and recovery to become as bloated and as dysfunctional as too many of our kids. More on the kids later.
Yes, billions of dollars have found their way to New Orleans, but the billions of investment dollars I refer to above aren't flowing to the Gulf Coast. They're floating all the way to India. Microsoft and Intel announced plans not too long ago to invest $1.7 billion and $1.05 billion in development funds in India; their announcements come on the heels of Cisco's pledge of $1.1 billion back in October. Jobs will be developed, infrastructure will be improved, and the scope, scale and sophistication of the work being done on the subcontinent will take quantum leaps in the near future. The cheap shot would be to hector the companies for not investing here. The reality is that I can full well understand why the companies are investing there and not here. The simple reason: an educated, ambitious workforce. End of story. Were I the companies and were I dependent on a workforce with those attributes today, I'm not sure I'd look to invest here today, either. The statistics about the states of math and science education in the U.S. are as plentiful as they are depressing. Moreover, while I'm blessed to know dozens of young people of great accomplishment, even greater promise, and possessed of agile, inquisitive minds, I know far more adolescents and 20-somethings (OK, and 30-somethings and 40-somethings) incapable of grammatical speech and whose scopes of interest can be politely characterized as limited. Achingly limited and a dreadful, unmotivated waste of a mind in so many cases.
Lastly, the absence of something is often felt more acutely than the presence of that same thing, even if the absence is the result of something akin to an evaporative process. So it is with job creation and growth in the U.S. Yes, jobs are being created. Lots of good jobs, in fact. But while all honest work is honorable, it makes life easier if the work is something that leads to something "better" or more lucrative or more satisfying. Are there lots of those jobs being created? Some, but not nearly as many as the sorts of positions that don't easily or evidently fit onto anything resembling a long-term personal growth arc. We've seen what became of factory work in this country. For that matter, we've seen what's becoming of the compact that had been struck between the operators of those factories and the retirees whose diligence and dedication once made those factories the envy of the world and a magnet for generations of immigrants. What's being created now? Lots and lots of purely functional positions that need only be filled by a measurably sentient human.
Where the creation of jobs is being felt is in Northern Ireland, where a boost in the IT economy in the form of investments by the likes of Citigroup, Fujitsu, Seagate, Raytheon, and others has led to job creation and a society where "people have learned to leave their political baggage at the door and go to work," according to Martin Mellon, a Belfast-based director at ASG Software Solutions, a U.S.-based company.
Looking ahead at a new year, it's tempting for a Pollyanna like me to have a rosy view, but it really is too much to ask for folks stateside to "leave their political baggage at the door." Isn't it?
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