The American Dream has become a nightmare. While the specifics of each person’s American Dream are unique, one common aspiration is the desire for a good-paying job. Why? Without a good-paying job, you struggle just to survive, let alone thrive.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 92,898,000 Americans are currently not in the labor force, an anemic participation rate of 62.8% — matching our nation’s all-time worst number. There are currently 6.5 million Americans who want a job. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Labor reported in May that there are currently five million job openings in America. While many are low-wage, many are middle- and high-paying jobs. Why are there so many such jobs unfilled when there are more people available than jobs? Employers say there’s a skills gap. And why is there a skills gap? Because America’s educational system is toast. What follows is my recipe to fix it.
Part therapy and part tough love, this 12-Step Program follows a familiar model for overcoming addiction, but instead of connecting with a Higher Power, this STEManifesto focuses on strategies for better connecting “Higher Education with Hire Education.” Let the intervention begin.
*Step 1: Give Up
The first step in fixing America’s dysfunctional educational system is to give up. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said, “Every two days, we now create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization” — and that was in 2010! How does education address this? By teaching our kids more and more and more, and testing more and more and more, and making school days longer and longer and longer, and starting to educate kids in day care, then pre-school, then pre-kindergarten, then kindergarten, then year-round kindergarten, then school, then longer school years, then college, then college for everyone, then grad school — STOP THE MADNESS! Folks, students can’t learn everything there is to know. It’s impossible so GIVE UP!
*Step 2: Giving Up Brings Peace
When you finally give up, there is this amazing freeing feeling, where you can fully exhale and think clearly about the situation. As an educational administrator, you’ll never have to worry again about being blindsided at a PTA meeting by a frenzied parent demanding, “Why did you cut the French impressionistic interpretation class for our 5th graders?” But most importantly, you can finally pause, ponder and prioritize. When everyone finally understands “We can’t do everything,” it forces clarity and prioritization.
*Step 3: Focus on the Most Important Things
While there are many noble goals in education, the most important is preparing kids in their areas of giftedness for lifelong high-quality lives and careers. If you have a high-quality job, I can tell you 10 challenges you won’t face every single day. However, if you don’t, then I can tell you 10 challenges (or more) that you WILL face every single day. Giving up and prioritizing makes it much easier to demarcate between wants and needs — those things that are nice to have and those that you need to have.
*Step 4: Reframe STEM as a Horizontal Enabler, Not a Stand-Alone Vertical
When I was in grade school in the 1980s, what we would consider STEM courses were discrete vertical fields of study like physics, data processing, trigonometry and engineering. Since then, however, the exponential explosion of computing power has revolutionized, synthesized and homogenized these and many other silos of study, resulting in a massive convergence of disparate content and constructs into a unified digital ecosystem. As a result, instead of separate uncoupled verticals, today’s knowledge platforms and educational pathways have become blended, blurred and forever intertwined into a singular computing continuum, providing the efficient underpinnings and connective tissue for integrating and enabling nearly every area of study. (Examples would include biotech, which combines biology and technology, and even radically changing platforms like music, where producers marry downbeats with downloads to synthesize sounds and launch the careers of aspiring new artists).
*Step 5: Stop Re-Manufacturing the Wheel
How many people drove to work today, yet can’t explain how the internal combustion engine works? How many clicked on this link, yet can’t explain how the content came from the cloud or even define what “the cloud” means? You don’t need to understand the mechanics of these transactions; you just need to know how to use the machine. The reason there are so few STEM graduates is because academia is fixated on making these courses as complicated and cumbersome as possible — making them ends unto themselves. Professors feel it’s their duty to make STEM classes as hard as possible, spending months on proofs — quixotically solving and resolving millions of equations, which have already been solved.
Here’s a bold idea: Gesture at the equations and the underlying science which informs these formula. Then pause and look your students in the face and tell them that the computers and machines they will be working with in the real world job market will already have this functionality built in. Then focus the rest of the semester on mastering the machines that incorporate these solutions rather than reinventing them.
*Step 6: Uncle Sam Says: A Case Study
The U.S. Army offers a brilliant organizational model and case study for reconciling America’s education-to -employment skills gap. If you join the Army, you will start by going through Basic Training — a nine-week introduction and indoctrination into our military system and hierarchy. During this time, every soldier will participate and be observed in a variety of activities. What’s great about the Army is that after the nine-week boot camp is over, soldiers will move on to Advanced Individual Training (AIT) to identify and master their job specialty, because Uncle Sam recognizes that it “takes all kinds” to make the Army work. Having soldiers focus in their areas of giftedness results in organizational optimization — matching up the smart skinny soldiers with logistics and supply chain management, and the tough strong soldiers with hand-to-hand combat missions.
*Step 7: What the Army Can Teach Academia
In 2013, I published a book, Specialist Nation: A Survival Plan for America, in which I asserted that academia is graduating class after class of highly indebted and increasingly unemployed generalists, while American industry is clamoring for highly focused and qualified specialists — and pleading for our system to stop trying to be all things to all people. I believe America could take a giant leap forward by following the preparation model used by the U.S. Army – having students go through nine weeks (okay — nine years) of “basic training” to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic and a cross-section of other coursework — and then specialize in their unique areas of talent and interest.
Call me naïve, but I believe every kid is gifted, but not in the narrow academic interpretation defined as “good at math” or “can write essays with above-grade-level vocabulary.” For me, gifted could also mean “has perfect pitch and can sing flawlessly” or “can dunk from the free-throw line” or “can tell what’s wrong with an engine just by listening to it” or “can invent a functioning robot out of household silverware and a car battery.” Right now our educational system is wired to hold kids back and slow them down by focusing on their weakest link, rather than driving them forward, pulled by what they do best.
*Step 8: The Oprah Effect
Around twenty years ago, Oprah grew frustrated with her health and embarked on an audacious goal to run the Marine Corps Marathon. What happened? Well, she went all out and started exercising rigorously, changed her diet and successfully completed the race in 4 hours and 29 minutes. But then what happened? After the race, she stopped these habits, and all of the weight returned — plus much more! The point is this — she set the wrong goal. Instead of “running the marathon,” a far superior goal would have been “making healthy lifestyle changes that are sustainable for the rest of her life.”
For the past 20 years, nearly every American kid has been told, “You have to go to college.” This is the wrong goal. Today there are millions of millennials went to college and are now both unemployed and drowning in over $1.3 trillion in student loan debt. The finish line shouldn’t be simply getting a diploma, but rather focusing on building a foundation that best positions a student to secure a good-paying job and advancing over their career in their unique area of passion and giftedness.
*Step 9: Making Amends
Step 9 of AA’s 12-Step program is “making amends” … So here goes. I’m sorry, but STEM is more important. It just IS. When we “give up” and are forced to evaluate how America will invest the precious hours available for educating the next generation of students, prioritizing and showcasing STEM-oriented curricula and specialized skills is more important for the survival of our kids in the future job market than other topics. Instead of requiring high school kids to take two years of a FOREIGN language, we should be requiring high school kids to take two years of a PROGRAMMING language. Spending two years learning French is not as important as investing those same two years learning how to leverage the machine. AmTrust’s Executive Recruiter Jeff Johnston lamented, “Even though we partner with the Top 5 IT search firms in the area, I can never find enough .NET and C# talent. We fill 20 positions, and immediately have another 20 positions to fill the next month – it’s crazy!”
CAUTION: Don’t confuse “getting devices” with “getting developers.” Last year, our school system proudly purchased hundreds of Google Chromebooks to help our students get more prepared to excel in our information economy by having more contemporary technology in the classroom. My two high school kids went from using spiral-bound notebooks to a clamshell notebook. But just having a computer so you can type words into Word versus writing words on a worksheet isn’t much progress. What IS progress is teaching kids how to use and leverage and harness the power of this machine to make humans more productive and effective.
*Step 10: STEM Supersedes Schooling
Before you hit “send” on that flaming comment, don’t blame me — it wasn’t my idea. While you were packing your beach towel for a long holiday weekend last July, a game-changing article was published in USA Today entitled, “Coast to Coast – STEM Jobs Take Longest to Fill,” and which included this quote:
“Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs take more than twice as long to fill as other openings, according to a new Brookings Institution study that provides the most detailed evidence yet of a skills gap that’s slowing payroll growth. Even more surprising, a high school graduate with a STEM background is in higher demand than a college grad without such skills, the report says.”
So, if I read that right, a college graduate that spent $80,000 on a 4-year degree in philosophy is LESS marketable than an 18-year-old with a STEM background (and no student loan debt).
*Step 11: Specialized Skills Trump Degrees
Tragically, there is even more bad news for the status quo of our current educational system — and there are many more data points where this came from. On July 2, 2014, CNN featured an article entitled, “Employers Value Skills Over College Degrees” noting “Forget about your GPA or paying for that graduate degree. What employers really care about are the skills you bring to the table. While the vast majority of employees believe their college education has helped them in their career, 72% said getting trained in a specific skill is more highly valued by their employer.”
In the May 13, 2015 U.S. News & World Report article entitled, “College Board Launches STEM Credential Initiative,” journalist Alan Neuhauser notes that companies have long lamented how U.S. schools teach (STEM) stating, “Dry coursework disconnected from real-world applications, they argue, has repelled thousands of students and left many others ill-prepared to pursue STEM majors or careers, causing a shortfall of qualified workers.”
*Step 12: Using Big Data to Go Deep Not Wide
It turns out that Big Data is both the problem and the solution for transforming education. Big Data is the problem because there is now too much granular information for any human to master in 12 years or 1200 years. So our educational philosophy must purposefully and strategically stand on the shoulders of those who went before and rather than redoing all of their work, advance their innovations by harnessing the power of what they created to manufacture our own breakthrough discoveries.
Big Data is also the solution because, by leveraging the ability of computers to efficiently harvest billions of data points, we can customize and curate curricula for the unique needs of unique students, and thereby better identify their areas of giftedness, interest and talent to steer them towards optimizing these skills.
In conclusion, the ongoing malaise of our “new normal” job market reinforces the fact that our economy is in the midst of massive structural upheaval, as prevailing employment statistics — unemployment, labor force participation and employment-to-population — all document an ongoing economic weakness far deeper than a simple business cycle downturn. Americans are increasingly being thrust into survival-mode decisions demanding that we prioritize, which unfortunately means that some important things have to be moved to make way for more important things.
For America to successfully compete in a global economy, we need to cultivate and nurture a nation of technologically fluent students. The only way to do this is to stop thinking of STEM as a vertical area of study and instead understand what it truly is — a horizontal enabler of nearly every area of study, exploration, interaction, communication and education.
Ultimately, it will be the productivity gains driven by this cohort that maintain America’s quantity of products and quality of life. And just as the balance of commerce once favored specialized tradesmen, then mass production, and which is now quickly boomeranging back towards highly trained artisan practitioners, it is the focused specialists behind the custom 3-D printers, skilled manufacturers and curated mobile software applications that will secure and protect our nation’s competitive advantage in the burgeoning knowledge economy going forward. At the end of the day, this STEM Manifesto is just a plea to prioritize productivity, and by embracing this strategic approach throughout our educational system.
Game. STEM. Match![Blackboard photo by Stuart Pilbrow] [Workout photo by Ben Bentley] [On the phone photo by BuzzFarmers]
Doug O’Bryon is managing director of Briarcliff Capital, an agile Big Data research and consulting firm “manufacturing the ideas that change individuals, institutions, and industries.” Author of four books and over 100 industry articles and publications covering financial markets, consumer behavior, risk management, educational trends and workforce analysis, he combines creative and quantitative insights to uncover and interpret seismic data patterns, resulting in break-through ideas and investments “Integrating Principal, Principals, and Principles™” dougobryon at gmail.com