November 22, 2013

American workers, 1945

How competitive are American workers in 2013? Here, factory workers in Washington are shown in 1945. Credit: UW Digital Collections / Flickr Creative Commons

Guests:

In our continuing series on American competitiveness - and whether America will still be the place where great innovation occurs - we’ve looked at transportation with Former Governor Ed Rendell and education with Professor Paul Peterson and former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn. Today we ask: how desirable are American workers? And is that desirability threatened by gridlock in Washington?

Elisabeth Reynolds, executive director of the Industrial Performance Center at MIT, began to notice a trend when she examined how businesses behaved in the United States.  Many companies built their first prototypes and pilot facilities here. But when it was time to ramp up to commercial production, they tended to move overseas to reap the benefits of lower wages and foreign governments keen to provide capital at an attractive rate.

Chemistry notes

Reynolds and Kanter say improving technical and STEM education in American schools is an essential part of producing a competitive workforce. Credit: piantetschai / Flickr Creative Commons

So where is the broken link in the chain? Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor at Harvard Business School and part of the U.S. Competitiveness Project, points to education of workers as a major factor. Even in the worst of the recession, she notes, there were still jobs available requiring technical skills – but the American education system left graduates unprepared to fill them. Both Kanter and Reynolds agree: reforming education to impart more technical skills and improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education will better prepare American workers for the jobs the global economy provides.

Capitol Building

Political gridlock in Washington has forced regional leaders to step up to the plate on business innovation. Credit: crazy george / Flickr Creative Commons

But making big changes to education requires political action, and – as any observer of today’s Congress will note, probably with an eye roll – political action is hard to come by in Washington these days.  Indeed, when asked about the biggest handicaps to American competition, respondents to a Harvard Business School survey on competitiveness pointed to political effectiveness. But where national leaders have fallen short, Kanter says, regional leaders like governors and mayors have stepped up.

Want to hear more about the competitiveness of American workers? Tune in to our full interview with Elisabeth Reynolds and Rosabeth Moss Kanter, above. 

Education, Business, Culture, industry, jobs, economy

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