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Future of U.S. Manufacturing Begins With Education

Posted: Jan 29, 2012

In his State of the Union, President Obama stressed the importance of keeping manufacturing in America. The reasoning is that in order to continue to innovate and develop the next generation must-have products, the US needs manufacturing that uses leading edge technology. Nothing wrong with the reasoning, but it may be too late.

A lengthy analysis on why jobs are flowing to China based on the Apple iPhone experience appeared in the New York Times. One of the most important findings of the NYT piece was that America simply no longer has the skill sets to meet Apple’s demands for a high quality, technology product. America has lost the edge to make things.

Advanced manufacturing depends on staffing the factory floor from the production line to the line supervisors with people possessing technical skills. The training programs Obama talked about might serve as temporary Band-Aids that might keep certain production from leaving in the short term. But to maintain a world leadership position, the US will need far more technicians, engineers and scientists than the country is producing.

For many years even before the 2008 financial meltdown, the smartest and brightest of American graduates were pursuing careers on Wall Street rather than careers in science and engineering. Making financial products was easier and more lucrative than manufacturing hard goods.

During the height of Japan bashing in the 1980’s, the late legendary Akio Morita, CEO of Sony, said America was good at moving money from one pocket to the other but not at making anything.

For decades the majority of Americans, most of the so-called 99 Percent, have been getting a basic education inferior to what their parents received. Although politicians readily acknowledge the importance of public education, budget allocations have not followed their lip service. Classrooms have gotten bigger, kids are being taught for fewer hours of the day and there are fewer school days in a year.

To meet the required budget cuts, schools are forced to cut out arts, music and other non-core courses and after school activities. Bare bones programs leave students uninspired as they sleep walk to graduation, not much wiser than when they started. Teachers waved the students through, rather than making sure that the lessons took hold.

Of course, there are pockets of exception. Perhaps 5 percent of Americans can afford to supplement their local school budget and help raise the quality of education for their children, or send their kids to better quality private schools. But that leaves a lot of untrained minds that will be hard pressed to realize their full potential.

In many parts of America, pro-science is regarded as anti-religion, or worse yet, pro-religion is ipso facto considered as antithetical to science. To demand that religious concepts be taught on equal footing with science – as creationists have done in their fight against Darwinian evolutionists – is to leave young minds poorly prepared for a productive adult life in a technology driven world.

Of the 40 people who made it to the final round of the 2012 Intel Science Talent Search, 14 have been identified as ethnic Chinese, 7 have South Asian surnames and 5 others have some other Asian surname. For many years now, more than half of the finalists, high school students with outstanding aptitude in sciences, have been first generation immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants.

Immigrants from China, India and Russia, in particular, come from cultures with a deep respect for learning and science. They have not been in America long enough for the anti-science mentality to alter their values.

So long as we are not able to turn out enough science and engineering graduates of our own, then President Obama is correct in saying the U.S. needs to welcome foreign students to stay after they graduate and not push them away.

But even if immigrants lead in the development of innovations, as we see in Silicon Valley, America still needs a solid pyramid base of people with skills that would turn innovations into commercial successes. President Obama spoke of keeping and building leading edge manufacturing in the U.S. This is not going to happen unless there is a fundamental shift in the American attitude about the importance of math and science.

Dr. Koo is a retired international business consultant with advanced degrees in engineering.

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