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The Business of Education: Avoiding a Skills Gap

Future U.S. competitiveness will depend on whether our students are given the proper skills to be college and career-ready. Businesses, maybe now more than ever, are investing in education and forming partnerships with schools to help ensure that our students are ready to join and compete in a 21st century global workforce. Boeing is no exception. Project-based learning and an emphasis on STEM subjects will be key to winning the future.

Date & Time

Jul. 18, 2011
10:30am – 11:30am


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

The Business of Education: Avoiding a Skills Gap

It has been widely discussed that future U.S. competitiveness will depend on whether its students are given the proper skills to be college and career-ready. In order to examine what is currently needed to ensure that students are prepared to join and compete in a 21st century global workforce the Program on America and the Global Economy (PAGE) hosted an event with Rick Stephens, Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Administration for The Boeing Company and the Founding Member of the Business Industry STEM Education Coalition. Kent Hughes, Director of the Program on America and the Global Economy, moderated the event.

Jane Harman, Director, President and CEO of the Wilson Center, opened the session by noting Rick Stephens’ role as a national champion in promoting better U.S. education.  Harman stressed that the best affirmative action policy in the country for anybody is a decent, quality public education. She also emphasized that the focus on math and sciences is absolutely critical for the United States to continue its leadership in the world. 

Stephens began by expressing his concern that despite a substantial increase in effort to promote education around the country, academic results have changed little in the last 28 years since the publication of the Nation at Risk report.  Stephens noted that the country has more than tripled its spending on education- the total expenditure per student in constant dollars increased from $3,300 in 1965 to $9,000 today- yet the results have not improved.

Calling the United States a “nation in crisis,” Stephens added that the challenge today is not a labor shortage. It is a skills shortage; the people with the right skills to do jobs in an ever-more competitive market place are lacking in today’s workforce.  In order to address this skills gap, Stephens argued that the country needs to retool its approach to education.  In identifying issues that must be tackled, he stressed the need to provide more opportunity for “real-life doing” to students. He noted that children today are missing the physical aspects of growing up due to the pervasiveness of entertainment media. Stephens also emphasized that students must learn to apply the knowledge they gain from school “so they will be ready to solve future problems that have not yet been identified, using technologies not yet invented, based on scientific knowledge not yet discovered.”

Stressing that the United States must prepare its youth for a fiercely competitive future, Stephens noted that it is time to put the right resources into the right programs and identify what has worked and to replicate it around the nation. After looking at numerous programs that have worked for many, Stephens suggested that there are five key components that are critically important for success in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) programs and the work place. First, he argued children need real-world experiences and hands-on, practical skills. They need to touch, manipulate, and see through their eyes what works and what does not. Second, what kids learn in school must relate to them. He mentioned that while kids can memorize, they will not learn if knowledge is not applicable. Third, children need role models to follow. Fourth, children should have mentors to guide and help them reflect on themselves. Lastly, children need incentives or motivation to do better through consistent recognition and encouragement.

On the question of whether good education all comes down to great teachers and whether we should do more to attract top talents, Stephen commented that while teacher development is important, early learning is more critical. But he added that larger investment in school leadership will likely bring improved results. In regards to a question about the role of industry in promoting better education, Stephens stressed that industry should make sure the programs they fund and support are covering those five key components but should leave the classroom to the Department of Education which has many activities under way at the national, state, and local level to effectively do their job.

In closing remarks, Stephens strongly argued that those five key attributes are what keep children engaged in education, and should be the focus of investment going forward. He added optimistically that although the United States is a nation in crisis there is still opportunity to respond.  Stephens concluded that the world has now changed and it is time for the United States to change its system to better prepare its youth in this ever-more competitive environment.

By: Hyun Kyong Lee

Kent Hughes, Director, Program on America and the Global Economy


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