In the "Underbelly of Despair," A Reason for Hope: Education

October 17, 2011

National Journal recently hosted a CEO-level summit, together with the Gallup Group, on the future of the American economy.  The event highlighted a lot of the fruitful discussion occurring across the country as we try to figure out how to get our economy growing again. The first issue that arose was two-fold: the relationship between job creation and education.  The second, local-level innovation, will be covered in a subsequent post.

As James Clifton, CEO of Gallup, strikingly put it, there are some 1.8 billion people in the world today who want a real job and can't get one.  He believes that this will be a defining feature of future social conflicts.  In America specifically, some 18.5% of the population is underemployed, and approximately 60% of those individuals have no hope of ever finding a real job.  Each of us are at least one degree removed from these long-term unemployed.

America is united around the "pinched nerve" of jobs, but disagree on the solutions.  This is where Alex Karp, CEO of Palantir Technologies, stepped in and said that the answer is for America is to educate like we're the best in the world, which we are.  While I am a proud graduate of a Scottish university myself, the recently released 2011 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) bears out the fact that most of the world's finest institutions of higher education are in fact found on our shores.  People want to identify with something valuable, he said, and education is it.  Unfortunately, too many Americans are either not taking advantage of the educational resources available to them or are finding that these courses are not relevant to the needs of employers.

Offering viable routes for technical or vocational education, rather than relying solely on four-year degree programs, would be a useful first step to encouraging higher rates of completion (as Germany has shown).  Colleges in turn should collaborate more with the private sector to insure that their students are being taught knowledge and skills equally relevant to their respective degree program and their intended career path. If education should be the focus for renewing America's economy for the long term, what should be taught and how?  

The panelists agreed that we have to give people the ability to do technical things, and that means that educators should emphasize cognitive skills at an early age.  In our increasingly skilled economy, math and science knowledge are critical to master.  Interestingly, Karp made the point that math and science aren't skills per se; they're more like languages, which must be taught and repeatedly reviewed from an early age onward.  Math and science then become important building blocks for children's development and future competitiveness, no matter their ultimate career.

Another critical element is to identify and nurture those who have an entrepreneurial spirit.  As Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) later pointed out, we are far too programmed right now in our lives and learning.  Not only is creativity lacking in the classroom, but we've mastered the process of finding someone's intelligence quotient while totally missing how to identify a child's entrepreneurial quotient.  Clifton noted that only 3 in every 1000 people have this raw ability, and that finding and fostering these individuals is critical to our nation's future job growth.

Noted journalist Michael Hirsh began the program by saying that in today's America "there's a deep underbelly of despair."  It would appear that education remains our hope for the future.