WASHINGTON—The topic was education and the talk was not optimistic at the Institute for a Competitive Workforces Sept. 25 workshop. A part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, ICW drew several hundred participants to its event, held with the goal of promoting effective and sustainable business and education/work force partnerships.
"Our continued leadership is not inevitable and may not be sustainable," Fred Tipson, Microsofts senior policy counsel, said in an afternoon panel discussion focused on upgrading the current and future work forces digital literacy and math and science skills. "The question is whether our work force or some other countrys will be beneficiaries of new technology."
Tipson referred to Americas ability to continue to produce high school and college graduates with the skills needed to be successful in todays technology work force as "dire."
Panel moderator James Whaley, president of the Siemens Foundation, added, "We can no longer assume the talent pipeline will be here."
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Judy Moog, national program director of the Verizon Foundation, gave the panel participants little reason to question Tipson or Whaleys statements. According to Moog, 70 percent of the nations eighth graders are below sufficient levels in reading skills and "might well never catch up."
Moog also pointed out that in terms of "quality" of high school graduates, America has fallen to 19th out of 26 nations surveyed. Moreover, she said, nearly half the U.S. adult population—some 93 million people—have very poor or marginal literacy skills.
"Literacy is the price of admission for competitiveness," she said. "People need to access a torrent of information over a vast array of devices. America isnt succeeding fast enough."
Tipson said Microsoft breaks down the issue into three phases: digital literacy, in which a person learns basic skills, digital fluency, meaning the skills are applied, and digital mastery, in which the first two steps are translated into advanced skills.
"We have a [digital] mastery gap, which is why we keep going outside the country to hire," he said. Microsoft is one of largest users of H-1B visas, a specialized-occupation temporary worker visa.
As for the future, only panelist Robert Leber of Northrop Grumman seemed optimistic, and then only if the business community gets behind efforts to support schools and training programs that emphasize digital literacy, math and science skills.
"The future is not young people, its keeping the business community involved," Leber said. "Young people need a global view of whats coming, not a xenophobic view about whats happening in other countries."
Moog, too, rooted for business community involvement but characterized the progress made on literacy in the last 10 years as "sad." Whaley said a possible solution was a lifelong "earning account" that would allow to workers to periodically retool their job skills.
Microsofts Tipson said glumly, "There is a stronger and stronger recognition we are not getting the job done."
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