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STEMm⁠i⁠ng ⁠t⁠he Flow of H⁠i⁠gher Ed

By: The James Madison Institute / November 29, 2011

The James Madison Institute

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November 29, 2011

By Dr. J. Robert McClure, JMI President & CEO
Florida’s job-promoting Gov. Rick Scott ruffled some feathers in academe when he suggested that public university students, whose education is heavily subsidized by tax dollars, should be encouraged to study subjects that would lead to a productive career. In particular, he urged an emphasis on the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math.He’s not alone in this view. It’s an idea promoted by observers across the political spectrum. They include liberal columnist Thomas Friedman, author of The World Is Flat. Their concern is that in important fields essential to our nation’s future competitiveness in a global economy, theUnited States is falling behind emerging nations suchChina andIndia – especially in the STEM fields.Meanwhile, the persistence of high unemployment during what’s being called “a jobless recovery” raises another question relevant to Governor Scott’s concerns: Why do millions of willing workers remain jobless while millions of good jobs remain unfilled?Tallahassee Fire Chief Cindy Dick may have inadvertently provided an insight during a recent speech to a local civic club. She noted thatTallahassee– one of the few cities still hiring – has been deluged with applicants for each of the few vacancies that occur as veteran firefighters retire. Some applicants were laid off by fiscally troubled cities, but many others are recent graduates of training programs still cranking out firefighters despite the diminished demand.This situation is hardly unique. Journalism is another career field in which there’s a growing mismatch between an oversupply of eager grads and a paucity of job opportunities. It’s a reminder that American education is not exactly nimble in adapting to changes in the economy. One of the principal reasons for the inertia was never explained better than during a speech given by Dr. Willard Daggett at the “2006 Florida Education Summit” co-sponsored by The James Madison Institute.  “In a global economy, ladies and gentlemen, is foreign language important? Yes or no?” [The audience replies “Yes!”] “A little or a lot?” [The audience replies “A lot!”] “What language?” [Someone replies, “Spanish.”] “Spanish is very important, yes. And beyond Spanish and English, what other?” [An audience member says, “Chinese.”] “So help me understand, ladies and gentlemen, why, as we speak this afternoon inAmerica, we have 1.3 million students in American high schools enrolled in French? And 24,000 students nationwide enrolled in Chinese? You know why: Because we’ve got the French teachers.”Of course the problem of trying to match career preparation with job availability goes far beyond firefighting, journalism, and foreign languages. Indeed, as a recent cover story in Bloomberg Business Week magazine reported, “Of the 47 million jobs theU.S.is expected to create by 2018, only a third will require a bachelor’s degree.” Even so, most kids from middle school on – regardless of their interests or aptitude – are steered into college-prep programs and told that a college degree is essential.Granted, universities are more than mere job-training academies. Moreover, as evident in the jobs bust followingAmerica’s post-Sputnik rush to produce scientists and engineers, not even those trendy fields are immune to the unemployment spikes that track the ups and downs of the general economy and government spending.University defenders of the liberal arts also have a point when they suggest that the main goal of higher education should be to produce broadly educated graduates who can think for themselves and adapt to an ever-evolving job market rather than graduates narrowly trained for a specific career field that might or might not have staying power.  So the discussion that Governor Scott initiated will go on. Meanwhile, is there a way to fix the supply-demand mismatch in the job market? Perhaps; the Bloomberg story touts the benefits of programs that retrain workers to transition from career fields that are ebbing to those that are growing. The author, Drake Bennett, also notes that retraining, as a concept, can span the full range of careers, from blue collar to white collar. Maybe it could even include teachers of French.