Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Skills development in the United States

      Skills (including legal skills) do not develop spontaneously or in a vacuum. Skills reflect a fusion of an array of factors, such as education; experience; mentors; cohesive families; and supportive economic, social, legal, and political institutions and policies. Consequently, acquiring a useful skill involves, typically, a long-term investment by both an individual and others near and far who provide direct as well as indirect support for a person’s skill-development efforts.

      In that context, Tom Friedman’s column in today’s New York Times -- “Can’t Keep a Bad Idea Down” -- highlights Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5, a newly published report from The National Academies Press that offers a sobering view of where the country stands globally in long-term investments in some of those skill-building factors. Friedman writes:

      Here is the story: In 2005 our National Academies responded to a call from a bipartisan group of senators to recommend 10 actions the federal government could take to enhance science and technology so America could successfully compete in the 21st century. Their response was published in a study, spearheaded by the industrialist Norman Augustine, titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.”
      Charles M. Vest, the former M.I.T. president, worked on the study and noted in a speech recently that “Gathering Storm,” together with work by the Council on Competitiveness, led to the America Competes Act of 2007, which increased funding for the basic science research that underlies our industrial economy. Other recommendations, like improving K-12 science education, were not substantively addressed.
      So, on Sept. 23, the same group released a follow-up report: “Rising Above the Gathering Storm Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5.” “The subtitle, ‘Rapidly Approaching Category 5,’ says it all,” noted Vest. “The committee’s conclusion is that ‘in spite of the efforts of both those in government and the private sector, the outlook for America to compete for quality jobs has further deteriorated over the past five years.’”
      But I thought: “We’re number 1!”
      “Here is a little dose of reality about where we actually rank today,” says Vest: sixth in global innovation-based competitiveness, but 40th in rate of change over the last decade; 11th among industrialized nations in the fraction of 25- to 34-year-olds who have graduated from high school; 16th in college completion rate; 22nd in broadband Internet access; 24th in life expectancy at birth; 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering; 48th in quality of K-12 math and science education; and 29th in the number of mobile phones per 100 people.

      Although not mentioned by Friedman, two years after publication of the original Gathering Storm report, The National Academies Press issued an updating essay, Is America Falling Off The Flat Earth?, written by Norman Augustine, the chair of the Gathering Storm Committee.


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