"I think we're no better off than we were in 1983" when the National Commission on Excellence in Education published 'Nation at Risk,'" says Edward Gordon, author of Skill Wars: Winning the Battle for Productivity and Profit (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000). "Basically, given how the world has shaped up with globalization and technology, we're further behind."
Gordon doesn't believe he's overstating the case when he defines the skills gap as a "war," even in light of the current national crisis. "I believe the shrinkage of the nation's technical workforce is the greatest threat to our national security," he says.
Last November, Gordon presented a white paper, "America's Meltdown: Why We Are Losing the Skills Wars and What We Can Do About It," to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Education, Employment and Training Committee. In his introduction, he stated, "America now faces the worst of all possible worlds in which high-tech jobs and even more traditional craft jobs will go unfilled, while millions of badly educated Americans languish with low-pay, dead-end employment ... tech jobs are leaving the United States not necessarily because wages are cheaper elsewhere, but due to the fact that the United States has failed to establish education/training policies that prepare more of our people to select tech-based careers and continue in them for life."
Citing numerous studies and reports, Gordon calls for a second education revolution, asserting that education reform efforts have missed the boat and that the majority of schools still don't provide the education that America's students need. He also writes that companies are paying more lip service than real attention to their employees' learning. Companies are fighting the skills war by hiring well-educated international workers; relocating in places like Ireland and Singapore that advertise their well-educated workforces; or selling off their technology through such methods as outsourcing or licensing agreements. One of the problems with these tactics is that the shortfall in skilled workers isn't going to stop at America's borders. The problem will be worldwide.
To win the skills war, Gordon writes, local coalitions of parents, business, unions and political leaders must create "liberal-arts career academies" in every community. He offers a range of guidelines for community activities—from establishing skill standards and flexible career-study programs to building collaboration between business and higher education in both the education and evaluation of teachers.
Gordon acknowledges that progress is being made within some organizations, and even that some school systems are adequately preparing young people for the workplace. But he is also convinced that businesses and their communities will have to feel more pain before they fully commit to solving the problem. —K.E.