Bad Math

Global Perspective

“Despite America’s knack for ingenuity, the forces of change face some heavy crosswinds.   A wheezing economy, a dearth of college engineering students, sagging high school math and science scores, and sinking research-and-development investments have heightened concerns about the USA’s ability to compete with rising powers China and India. By Goldman Sachs’ estimate, the Chinese economy will overtake the U.S. economy by 2027 and almost double its size by 2050.”

Jon Swartz’s USA Today article goes beyond this quote to question how the U.S. economy can effectively compete when India and China reportedly graduate close to 1 million engineering students each year in comparison to about 10% of this total for the U.S..  This less than cheery assessment of the plight of our US economy deals with one part of the issue.

Workforce Shortage

There’s a back-story here that is also worth considering.  As if not scary enough that the U.S. risks falling behind in the so-called global “brain race” in technical fields, some experts and employers are increasingly pointing to what could be a very serious problem emerging within our already-shrunken manufacturing sector.  More specifically, it is a growing notion that a significant chunk of the U.S. manufacturing workforce may lack basic “shop math” skills.

“Shop math” encompasses such basics as arithmetic, decimals, and fractions, but can also extend somewhat into more abstract areas such as geometry, trigonometry, and yes, even calculus.  “You’d be amazed at how many people can’t read a ruler to one-sixteenth of an inch,” said Lee Cohn of Case Paper Co., when asked for his opinion in Jane M. Von Bergen’s recent Philadelphia Inquirer article.

Says Anthony Girifalco of the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center, “We want to get people back to work, and there’s a supply of bodies……There’s demand in the manufacturing sector. But how do you close the skills gap?”

Next Steps

As U.S. companies continue to see off-shoring as a lever of competitive necessity, the above “skills gap” could not come at a worse time.  Technological advances are sure to widen this gap, as the very nature of core work functions continues to change at an increasing rate.  The basic issue will come down to whether or not anyone is going to do anything that signficantly addresses the problem.

Major questions loom.  Will public policy makers step in?  Will manufacturers and other employers take new steps to educate employees?  Will educators, school districts, and universities step up with innovative solutions?  Together, these groups will need to find new ways to take the next steps toward a solution to this very real problem.


About Thomas W. Smith
Bizsinc - Bringing Business to Life

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