Education is arguably the national pastime in the U.S. Americans love to talk about its importance and pour lots of money into it. For all the talk (and dollars), however, the results seem abysmal, and technology companies often complain about a lack of talent—usually owing to poor STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. But is there really a problem, and if so, what should be done about it?
The Problem Is More Fundamental Than STEM
The skills of technology jobs are built on more basic abilities, the most fundamental being literacy. To hear the CIA World Factbook tell it, the U.S. has a 99% literacy rate (where literacy is defined as the ability to read and write at age 15). By bare-minimum standards, this may be true: most people can “read” a stop sign and thereby avoid a car crash, and most can probably write their names. But that isn’t enough in technology, which can involve reading technical reports, complex schematics, software code (including comments), equipment specifications and on and on. Furthermore, learning new skills often requires the ability to read at a proficient level.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (and there’s really no room for sequestration “cuts”?), “Twenty-two percent of adults [in 2003] were Below Basic (indicating they possess no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills) in quantitative literacy, compared with 14 percent in prose literacy and 12 percent in document literacy.” USAToday reported in 2009 that according to the same government agency, “an estimated 32 million adults in the USA—about one in seven—are saddled with such low literacy skills that it would be tough for them to read anything more challenging than a children’s picture book or to understand a medication’s side effects listed on a pill bottle.” That’s a far cry from 99% literacy, unless the term is watered down to near meaninglessness.
Most recently, CBS reported that “nearly 80 percent of New York City high school graduates need to relearn basic skills before they can enter the City University’s community college system.” And CUNY isn’t exactly MIT or Caltech. To be sure, New York City is an easy target, owing to its high per-student expenditures and other factors, but it is illustrative of the failure of money to educate.
Is STEM Uncool?
A recent EE Times article bemoaned the public image of engineers as a reason why the U.S. education system—despite its world-leading expenditures per student—lags other nations in STEM results. But is a youngster who is interested in becoming an engineer (or scientist, mathematician or other technical professional) really going to lose that interest over such a trivial consideration? Maybe the problem is simply that STEM lacks the aura needed to attract those with the talent but not necessarily the interest.
To some extent, personality will determine interest in and pursuit of STEM. Some individuals would rather be artists, tradesmen, doctors, lawyers or any number of other types of professionals—and that’s fine. But don’t underestimate the ability of your typical K-12 school to make any topic abysmally boring and lifeless. From the odious readers that are foisted on students, with their loathsome stories and excerpts that would make Mark Twain want to quit reading and writing, to the rigid schedule that prevents students from pursuing their interests, government schools are a drag on STEM (and other worthy subjects)—not a cure for inadequacy.
Immigration: A Solution or a Problem?
Numerous technology companies complain about a lack of H1-B visas, suggesting a shortage of qualified workers in the U.S. with the necessary skills. But as InformationWeek notes, this issue is swayed by other factors: in particular, company sponsorship of foreign workers essentially prevents these workers from quitting and moving to another company. This limitation is a boon on large projects, where loss of workers part way through can be expensive.
Immigration policy in the U.S. is burdensome. Greater leeway to accept (and leave) positions might increase the representation of foreigners in technology jobs, but this doesn’t mean necessarily that these workers are “stealing our jobs,” as American jingoists so often love to say. These same workers also become consumers, which, collectively, can create more jobs in other sectors, which can in turn increase demand for IT services.
The poor quality of K-12 education means that individuals require more education to reach a certain level of marketability. (Unfortunately, this often leads to companies demanding degrees for jobs that shouldn’t require them.) But the increasing unaffordability of college degrees makes reaching marketability a growing burden for young people.
If you run a company, would you consider hiring someone for a high-tech position if that individual had no graduate degree? What about if he or she had no college degree? What if a talented individual who left high school to escape the boredom of it to develop talents on his or her own wanted to work for you? How many HR departments are equipped to evaluate such candidates?
With K-12 schools barely doing their ostensible job of teaching basic literacy and other skills, colleges and universities are forced to pick up the slack. That, of course, means that companies must pick up some of the slack too. When the basics take up more of a student’s time, specialized skills receive less attention.
IT companies want a pool of talent that offers marketable STEM skills. Unfortunately, the educational system in the U.S. poses many roadblocks. Government-controlled K-12 education stifles talent and interest through its inflexible schedule, contemptible content and obsession with uniformity (everyone essentially takes the same classes for the same amount of time day in and day out, year after year). Higher education, which provides some freedom (although it still imposes pointless curriculum requirements), is becoming unaffordable for many Americans—who are already having trouble just buying a new car.
STEM skills are built on a foundation of literacy, proficiency in which is hardly to be presumed in the U.S. Given the perennial failure of the government-controlled, government-subsidized education system to meet these basic needs, it’s time to stop calling for more spending on a broken system and to start investigating how to better generate interest and expertise in STEM freely. Technology companies that are clamoring for more talent should be the first to offer alternatives.
Photo courtest of RDECOM