I had a chance to have my photograph taken with President Obama on Thursday with Shauna Mei, the CEO of AHALife a Firstmark portfolio company. Standing in line with Shauna, I told her how excited I was because I wanted to tell the President something that I thought was going to be one of the biggest challenges our nation will face in the coming years but what is being ignored by Washington. Shauna and I got up to shake his hand, receive his warm thanks for coming (and donating!) and snapped the photo. Then, as my big chance came and I got half way through what I wanted to say, I was ushered away by a smiling factotum who was looking at me as he would his senile grandmother who could not find the front door to her house.
But here’s what I wanted to tell him:
“Mr. President, last week we announced that a higher percentage of Americans have college degrees than in any time our nation’s history, but nobody in your administration or Washington seems to realize that we also have the highest skills gap between what our people have and what our nation needs than at any point in our nation’s history. This will be the largest near term problem that you will face and the one that may decide how history judges your presidency.”
When I say skills, I’m not only talking about welders and pipefitters and other trades (although we need more talented people in these fields too). I’m talking about the skills and knowledge that our nation needs to remain on top in the industries that drive our economy. Every industry from financial services to media to retail to manufacturing is undergoing enormous change as the internet and advancements in software, computing and storage create a connected world where the old rules no longer exist. This connected world looks nothing like the world we lived in as recently as 10 years ago but only a few people in this country (and none in our political leadership) realize it. As our leaders trumpet the success of education as evidenced by the growing percentage of college educated citizens we have, they don’t realize that our universities, for the most part, are doing a terrible job overall in preparing students to be competitive in this new world where our dominance as a nation is no longer assured.
Our universities have become so dislocated from the world at large because they have convinced everyone that we need them, we subsidize their tuition with student loans and then we don’t hold them accountable for the product they produce. 20 years ago, this may have been fine, but no longer. The world has changed, it is more competitive, the skills needed by the companies that are driving our economy have changed, our government is growing more dysfunctional each day yet our universities feel they are doing just fine because they have created more college graduates.
At one point, statisticians figured out that college grads earn more than non college grads. Therefore, they concluded, everyone needs to go to college so they can make more money. But I believe they mixed up cause and effect: most smart people went to college and graduated and smart people make more money. Why? Because they are SMARTER!!! What we have now is more people with degrees that have prepared them for nothing. We should stop focusing on college degrees and start focusing on what we want college degrees to mean. In my mind, a university is successful if it can mold someone who has mastered these broad skills:
- Constant Curiosity – the person who is always wondering why and then seeks to figure it out. We don’t graduate people who are curious – we graduate people who have mastered meaningless topics and have paid $200,000 for the privilege of being incredibly unprepared for a changing world.
- Problem Solving – every day we are faced with new challenges. In a connected world, this pace is accelerating faster each day. No matter what you do in life, you need to be able to identify and then solve whatever problem you face. This is not a talent; it is a skill and it is rarely taught outside of math, science and engineering.
- Communication – in a connected world, the ability to communicate clearly irrespective of the medium is critical.
- Prepared for Constant Change– what you know now will be obsolete in fewer than five years because the world is changing so quickly. You will be learning everyday for the rest of your life so get used to it!
Yes, these are skills not concepts or attributed. They can be developed and mastered if they are taught and emphasized. But we are not graduating people who have mastered these skills because these skills are not critical to the curriculum of the universities outside the math, science and engineering disciplines. Moreover, we have been conditioned to think that when we graduate with our college degree, we are done learning. Maybe in the past, but in this connected world constant change means you need to change your skills and knowledge constantly. Your education does not end at graduation, it begins. But structurally, we don’t recognize this fact. We don’t provide guidance for people for the skills they will need so we end up with workers with obsolete skills and knowledge, many of whom will never work again in their life as the world speeds by them. We need a systematic approach to continuing education and training.
I’m a big believer that for America to be great, we need to make things. I believe that there will be a wave of “reindustrialization” that can drive this company forward over the next 20 years but these factories that arise here won’t look like Foxconn with thousands of workers doing mindless tasks. We can’t compete. These new factories will look like dozens of workers controlling machines and computers, solving problems and making real-time systems adjustments based on the conditions/opportunities with which they are presented. You won’t be prepared for this job by graduating with a degree in psychology unless you have elements of your curriculum that embrace the broad skills above and enable you to succeed in this new environment (Yes, we need psychologists, but not as many as we graduate. It is a great major to have if you can pair it with something like computer science or engineering or math).
As a nation, we don’t have the industry-specific skills we need because we don’t have culture created by the broader skills I list above and we don’t have any way of showing a clear path to our people for the development of the specific skills they need. At the university level, we’ll keep producing people with degrees in Communications or Political Science or Women’s Studies or many other degrees who lack the skills to compete yet have been conditioned to believe that they will succeed simply because they graduated from college. Truthfully, they would have been better off and better prepared doing something else. We will hit 15% unemployment before we hit 5% and the reason is not because we don’t have jobs, it’s because we don’t have people with the skills to fill them. But, on the other hand, we’ll have the most educated burger flippers on the planet.
So, that, Mr. President, was what I wanted to say. I’m glad I got that off my chest and I hope that someone in your administration is focusing on it. If we can develop the people we need to achieve the opportunities we will be presented with, many of the other problems our nation faces will become a whole lot easier to fix.
P.S. I’m here to help and not throw stones. I believe that our nation’s best years are ahead of us, but only if we recognize and embrace the significant challenges we face.