Group Tries to Make National Skills Agenda a Political Priority

By Staff Report

May. 2, 2008

A Washington organization dedicated to strengthening U.S. economic clout is trying to make the issue of improving the skills of American workers a top political priority.

The Council on Competitiveness, a group of leaders from industry, academia and the labor community, called for a national skills agenda that would “ensure a rising standard of living” during a Capitol Hill meeting on Wednesday, April 30. 

The council warned that U.S. productivity is threatened by a combination of a shrinking U.S. workforce and inadequate reading and math skills among those who are in the labor market.

It urged an increased emphasis on “middle” skills—for jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree but do call for training beyond high school—and “service economy” skills, such as problem solving, collaboration and teamwork, that enable workers to interact better with customers.

Although the United States needs to produce more scientists and engineers, quantity alone is insufficient, the council said. U.S. technology workers need to have stronger interdisciplinary and entrepreneurial skills.

The recommendations are contained in the council’s report, titled “Thrive: The Skills Imperative.”

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, embraced the report and encouraged the council to provide Congress guidance on the issue.

“Skills are our most sustainable competitive advantage,” Baucus said at the event launching the council report. “They can be our anchor in the turbulent world economy we have.”

Baucus took listeners on a verbal tour of Highway 93, which bisects his state. He mentioned several towns where companies are able to engage in the global economy because of the quality of their machinists, welders and research scientists.

“Montana competes with its workforce,” Baucus said. But he also said that he constantly hears from companies having difficulty attracting and retaining skilled workers.

A major global technology firm has a similar challenge. James Spohrer, director of service research at IBM and a council advisor, says the company can find plenty of engineers and MBAs who are trained to work in manufacturing.

The problem is that IBM has transformed itself from a manufacturing to a business services company. The universities and colleges where it recruits haven’t undergone a similar metamorphosis.

Their science, engineering and management curricula continue to focus about 80 percent on manufacturing and 20 percent on services. In the latter area, students learn about dealing with networks, supply chains, markets and—most important—customers and their quirks.

“The knowledge economy and the service economy are two sides of the same coin,” Spohrer said. “We’re not preparing scientists and engineers for the services economy.”

It’s one thing to bring such concerns to Congress and get a prominent senator to pay attention. Substantial traction, however, requires putting the issue on the presidential campaign agenda, a place where it hasn’t popped up so far.

“Competitiveness, education and investment in research has hardly been addressed at all,” said Norman Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin and a council advisor. “There is not yet a real broad understanding among the populace of the risks we’re taking if we don’t address” workforce issues.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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