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Friday, July 19, 2013

A Tech Veteran Takes on the Skills Gap

Gary J. Beach has long been a close observer of technology, a frequent speaker on the conference circuit and a confidante of senior technology executives. He is a former publisher of Computerworld, Network World and CIO Magazine, where he is currently publisher emeritus.

More than six years ago, Mr. Beach decided to begin studying in earnest a much-debated issue, and a subject of ritual complaint among technology executives â€" the apparently lagging skills of the American workforce. The result, published on Thursday, is his book, “The U.S. Technology Skills Gap: What Every Technology Executive Must Know to Save America’s Future” (John Wiley & Sons).

Much of the book is an illuminating, idiosyncratic history of education in America, dating back to 1941. “The skills gap is really an education gap, and it affects us all,” Mr. Beach explained in an interview on Thursday.

Today’s headlines about the sorry state of math and science proficiency of American children are nothing new. In 1964, Mr. Beach writes, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement tested the math skills of eighth graders in 13 countries, and the American students came in next to last.

A scathing indictment of the United States public education system came in 1983, from an expert commission appointed by Ronald Reagan, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.”

Then, America’s formidable economic challenger was Japan, a nation of high achieving math and science test-takers. Today, the ascendant power is China, which produces engineers at a torrid rate.

The Japan challenge faded. What’s different this time?

One difference, Mr. Beach suggests, is the historical moment. And he makes the argument by showing off his research chops, pointing to a fascinating if obscure source: the Yuasa Phenomenon. This is a theory expounded by a Japanese physicist and historian, Mitsutomo Yuasa, in the 1960s. Since 1540, he declared, the mantle of global scientific leadership has moved from one country to another every 80 to 100 years. The United States, by his reckoning, became the leader in science in 1920.

America, Mr. Beach writes, cannot compete with China or India in churning out engineers. Instead, the Untied States can thrive by being more innovative. Stronger math and science skills are needed, he writes, but so are other skills, which he calls the “5C’s â€" critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity and confidence.”

“A nation,” Mr. Beach writes, “whose citizens excel in the 5C’s, but not math and science, is a nation of liberal arts majors! A nation of math and science wizards who can’t think, communicate, collaborate or create, is a nation of machines. The successful countries of the 21st century will, and must, doboth well.”

Mr. Beach has some reasonably fresh recommendations for improving education in America. He would nearly double the starting salaries of bright young teachers to both attract more of them and place American starting salaries on a par with Finland and South Korea, two high-achieving nations in education.

To pay for that proposal, Mr. Beach suggests the creation of state education trust funds, modeled after the “Highway Trust Fund,” the Eisenhower creation to finance the construction and maintenance of the nation’s interstate highway system with a tax on gasoline.

Under the Beach plan, businesses would pay a yearly tax of $10 a worker and parents would pay $10 for each child between the ages of six to 17. That would raise $4.3 billion a year and pay for hiring 143,000 new math and science teachers.

Now, the whole notion of a skills gap has been challenged recently by some academics, notably Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School. They point to stagnant wages; if there were real shortages, businesses would pay more.

Mr. Beach sees a different world, based on his conversations with technology executives. “The skills gap is not fiction,” he said. But in the technology industry, he said, there is a global market for skills â€" a market accessible to workers anywhere with the know-how and an Internet connection. The online worldwide labor pool, Mr. Beach suggests, slows wage growth for many technology jobs.