HETRICK: How to make our recession last forever

August 21, 2010

A few weeks ago, I did some research for a work assignment. My reading included a study about Warsaw, the “Orthopedics Capital of the World.”

The study was done by the Indiana life sciences trade group BioCrossroads. It touts Warsaw’s global orthopedics market share, its economic impact on the state of Indiana, and its bright outlook for the future—including abundant, high-paying jobs.

One of the biggest concerns, the study says, is the availability of skilled workers, and the education required for such a sophisticated industry.

It cites, for example, the “constant need for a pipeline of technicians, machinists and manufacturing workers in the industry.”

But the study goes on to say that, despite internal training programs and orthopedics-focused programs at Ivy Tech Community College and Grace College, “there is much to suggest that the K-12 pipeline and a large share of recently unemployed auto workers lack many of the habits and learning capacities the industry needs.”

And while Warsaw’s public school facilities win praise, there’s pressure for the school system to strengthen the current educational curriculum and add programs to better prepare students for an evolving economic landscape as well as future educational pursuits.”

In other words, today’s and tomorrow’s jobs are increasingly dependent upon more and better education. Yet there’s a widening gap between what our citizens have learned and what our employers need them to know.

As I drove home from a meeting in Warsaw, NPR pounded this home in a story about cyber-security—the art and science of protecting vital computerized information.

“By one estimate,” reporter Carolyn Beeler said, “the United States needs up to 30,000 cybersecurity specialists to protect the government and large corporations. Now, there are only about 1,000.”

The problem, Beeler said: “The U.S. is way behind in finding and training talent, and that leaves the country’s power grid, defense industry and banks vulnerable.”

Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education recently issued a study that quantifies the problem.

“By 2018,” Lumina said, “nearly two-thirds of available jobs will require some form of higher education.”

Yet today, Lumina said, only one-third of Hoosiers have a degree, and the national rate is only about 40 percent.

To help meet the growing demand, Lumina wants to help increase the number of Americans with college degrees to 60 percent by 2025—a 50-percent increase.

It won’t be easy. But there’s hope in the achievement of other nations that have caught up with and surpassed the United States.

Forty years ago, Lumina research shows, the United States led the world in the percentage of adults with college degrees. Now, we rank 10th.

That’s not a good omen for the current recession or future economy.

“Over the long term, the best response to the current downturn, by far, would be for the country to regain the global lead in education,” said economics journalist David Leonhardt in a recent New York Times column.

But we’re sure not doing that.

We’re cutting school funding, laying off teachers, shortening school weeks, cutting programs and otherwise decimating our once-proud education system. NBC News reported last week that some schools are even making parents provide such basic supplies as toilet paper for their children.

Those with less learning are paying the price.

The current recession, Leonhardt said, “has … exacted a much harsher toll on the less educated. The unemployment rate for college graduates is still just 4.5 percent, and the gap between their pay and everyone else’s is larger than it has ever been. For most college graduates, the Great Recession has not lived up to its name.”

“And there is good reason,” Leonhardt said. “In today’s high-tech, global economy, educated workers remain very much in demand. They make their companies more productive and the American economy more competitive. They expand the size of the economic pie.”

There’s much angst in the news and on the political circuit these days about the slow economic recovery, minimal job growth and continued high unemployment.

Some—including, apparently, those refusing to even vote on a proposed wage cut to save jobs and secure a buyer for GM’s Indianapolis stamping plant—seem to think we’ll miraculously return to the good ol’ days of high-paying, lifetime-benefits, minimal-education-required employment.

Not gonna happen.

For decades, we’ve whined about American manufacturing jobs moving overseas.

If we don’t invest in education, we can whine about losing service, professional and technical jobs, too.

Our children are returning to school this month. No matter how pressed we are for tax savings, our future depends on our ability to reach them and teach them with unprecedented success.

Making them supply their own toilet paper is not the best place to start.•

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Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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