March/April 2012
Workforce Development

The education challenge we must address

By Fred Wentzel

A highly skilled workforce is the lifeblood of any successful company, industry, or national economy. The U.S. has been the breeding ground for the world's most innovative economy, companies, and products in large part because it offered a diverse pool of talented, highly educated workers. But evidence of a decline is surfacing, precipitated by three gathering trends: an increasingly ill-prepared domestic workforce, a steadily depleting stock of highly skilled and educated foreign nationals, and an aging population.

During most of the 20th century, the U.S. economy provided Americans with a high quality of life unparalleled across the globe, the result of the rising productivity of our workforce, increasing technological advances, and many successfully commercialized innovations.

Eleven years into the 21st century, the tide is turning in large part because of the impact of globalization, dependency on foreign oil, and the expanding economies of Asia. Many American workers today are competing with lower-wage workers in Asia and Central Europe and seeing jobs disappear as American companies move plants and research facilities off-shore. The advantages American workforce members had in the 20th century are eroding, especially as small and medium-sized companies find it difficult to compete with foreign companies at home and abroad. 

Equally disturbing is the fact that the U.S. education system is not keeping pace with the changing needs of U.S. employers who require workers with increasingly technical skills that will enable them to compete successfully in the global economy. Too many secondary students lack the reading, writing, problem-solving, and STEM skills they need to succeed in postsecondary education and/or the ever-changing world of work … too many drop out of high school before graduating … and too many high school graduates never enroll in postsecondary institutions of learning.

If American students and workers are to compete successfully in the 21st century workforce, they must have access to a learning system that provides them with the knowledge and skills built on world-class academic and workforce standards.

To address these growing challenges and to help U.S. students gain access to the knowledge and skills they need, the National Council for Advanced Manufacturing recommends policy makers incorporate six basic principles in any future education and training policies:

  1. Promote and support the adoption of appropriate, validated, and rigorous world-class learning standards, assessments, and curricula for Pre-K-16 students.
  2. Include applied learning in the curricula for all students in grades Pre-K-12, leveraging business/education partnerships to ensure workplace-relevant learning activities.
  3. Require all graduating high school students to demonstrate mastery of the academic and workplace competencies outlined in the Employment and Training Administration Competencies Model.
  4. Strengthen career counseling for students in grades 7-12 to help ensure graduates gain access to postsecondary schools or productive employment.
  5. Assist adult workforce members in mastering nationally-recognized academic and workplace competencies and commit themselves to lifelong learning by upgrading their skills and/or acquiring new skills to remain in productive employment for as long as they wish to do so. 
  6. Periodically rethink and change existing learning paradigms to ensure these principles are achieved.

By focusing on the realities of the 21st century global economy and taking a long-term view of America's role in the expanding global marketplace, these recommendations envision a learning system that equips all students and workers for jobs and careers that will keep this nation innovative, productive, and economically secure for years to come.


Fred Wentzel is the executive vice president of the National Council for Advanced Manufacturing and president of The Saratoga Group, a consulting group that focuses on education and training issues confronting employers, education entities and policy makers.