U.S. Education, Competitive Edge Not Adding Up

WASHINGTON — As the lame duck Congress considers adding President Bush’s Competitiveness Initiative to its closing days, the Council on Competitiveness is meeting here Tuesday with a message to lawmakers: go for it, but be careful.

“The world of global trade has changed significantly since the 1980s, but our methods for understanding and measuring these changes have not kept up with the pace of global transformation,” said Deborah L. Wince-Smith, president of the widely respected public policy advocacy group.

To help Congress shape its agenda, the Council has developed the Competitiveness Index, which benchmarks the United States’ current economic situation against 20 years of global economic data.

So how’s America doing?

Better than you might think, said Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School professor and co-author of the Competitiveness Index report.

“Competitiveness is a not a zero-sum game and the success of other economies is not a failure of U.S. competitiveness,” said Porter. “As all nations improve their productivity, wages rise and markets expand, creating the potential for rising prosperity for all.”

Porter said America remains the world’s economic leader, but that lead is in no way guaranteed.

And nowhere is that lead more threatened than in education, particularly in the areas of science, math and engineering.

“It’s the greatest single threat to American prosperity,” Porter said. “It’s a weakness. We’re lagging behind.”

On average, U.S. colleges and universities now annually turn out approximately 1 million graduates, but only 70,000 of those degrees are in engineering. By contrast, China and India churn out 6.4 million college graduates a year, with almost 1 million of those in engineering.

“Despite calls dating back to 1983 for concerted moves to counter mediocre educational performance, the U.S. educational system still fails to meet many of the needs of a globally competitive economy,” Porter’s report said.

In February, Bush called for spending $5.9 billion in 2007 and $136 billion over the next 10 years to increase U.S. investments in research and development, strengthen education in math and science and encourage entrepreneurship and innovation.

Bush said most of the proposed funding would go to three federal agencies that support basic research in the physical sciences and engineering: the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology.

In addition, the president wants to commit $380 million in new federal support to improve the quality of math, science and technological education in K-12 schools. The president also called for opening more foreign markets for U.S. IT goods and services.

“The number one economic problem is education,” Porter said. “We were ahead in educational attainment and now we’re behind. Other countries’ educational changes have been more rapid than ours.”

The report specifically highlights the information technology sector.

“IT workers, in general, are highly educated,” the report states. “But many still face the possibility that their skills will be commoditized.”

Porter’s report said the greatest gains in IT jobs have come in areas requiring complex communication, such as interacting with others to acquire information or persuading others of the implications for action.

Jobs that depend on solving problems for which there is no rules-based solution are increasing in value.

“Lower wage workers who use IT lost 711,000 jobs from 1999 to 2004,” the report states. “But jobs held by high-skilled, judgment-oriented and problem-solving IT workers increased by 513,000.”

Porter calls it the 21st Century conceptual economy.

“Many Americans still leave high school unprepared for future education, the workforce or ongoing training,” according to the report. “This is particularly troubling as data clearly indicate that all of the high-paying and fastest-growing jobs over the next decade will require at least some college education.”

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