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California State Capitol

Education policy borne from the legislative seats inside buildings like this has to change if American exceptionalism is to be fostered and our 21st Century challenges met.

American exceptionalism starts with education

We hear it almost daily in California agriculture circles: there’s a labor shortage. Probably more dangerous to the success of this country is the skilled labor shortage impacting many facets of our economy, including agriculture and the energy field.

American students today are not prepared for the demands created by careers that are heavily dependent upon science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), according to Joe Harlan, executive vice president of Dow Chemical. Harlan oversees chemicals, energy and performance materials, according to Dow’s website [3].

Moreover, Harlan asserts that the successes seen in the early days of the Industrial Revolution will never be matched, much less exceeded, if we don’t drastically change our focus and emphasis.

While understandable his energy-sector focus given his audience was the Houston Rotary Club, Harlan did not mention agriculture. I’m certainly not being critical of Mr. Harlan at all – just something I point out that can be added to his speech as yet another example of America’s needs.

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The gist of his comments is this: America is failing itself and future generations by not educating our kids in ways that can help them and help the country succeed. He cites some interesting statistics that bear repeating.

  • 68 percent of U.S. 9th graders will graduate on schedule
  • 40 percent of those will enroll in college
  • 27 percent will remain enrolled
  • 18 percent will earn an Associate’s degree within three years or a Bachelor’s degree within six.

Harlan continued: Graduates with a BA Degree from the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology earned a higher salary last year than graduates with BA degrees from Columbia, Cornell, Case, Western, Princeton, Duke, Dartmouth and Harvard. Given the astronomical cost of a college education these days, that’s helpful since college graduates today are nearly six figures in debt before they start their first job.

A story from 2010 [5] reports the cost of a college education in America is rising at a rate two-to-three times the rate of inflation, exceeding even the rate at which medical care costs are increasing. And yet the political debate has long been over the rising cost of medical care.

Harlan also cited information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that nearly two-thirds of all jobs openings will come in occupations that do not require a postsecondary education.

“But they do require more than we’re providing our kids,” Harlan said. “And that’s our fault.”

Recommendations

Harlan recommended the following to help close the gap. The following is from his prepared comments to the Rotary Club, edited for brevity.

“We must commit ourselves to improving teachers’ skills through mentoring and formal training. Study after study show that having a teacher who’s knowledgeable and motivated can be the most important difference to produce inspired students.

“We must engage our students with hands-on learning as a model to build, support and grow the) STEM pipeline.

“They need to understand, for instance, that even having an associate’s degree in a STEM field pays more than having a bachelor’s degree in any other field. They need to hear that the average starting salary for a chemical industry employee in Texas is nearly $90,000. Do they know that, with just a little overtime, skilled construction workers can earn more than $100,000 within a few years of starting a job?”

I recommend reading the prepared text [6] of Harlan’s speech. There’s much more there than I can cover in one sitting.

Harlan’s speech was a call-to-action, and rightfully so. While there is nothing wrong with a career in the energy field, I would insert agriculture in this discussion too. As has been emphasized in many circles, not only will the United States benefit from becoming more energy independent (or totally independent for that matter), but our agricultural independence is likewise an issue of national security in today’s crisis-driven political climate.

Harlan finished his prepared comments with this: “We need you to advocate for higher-performing schools and a hands-on curricula. Be a leader for change in our education system. Engage on the state and national level so our government leaders understand the issue and act accordingly. Make sure they understand that the main difference between continuing mediocrity and excellence is education."

I’ll add this as I concur with Harlan’s comments: something needs to be done to control the skyrocketing cost of a college education. A breaking point will soon be reached where those who truly need the four-year or graduate degrees to match their ambitions will simply not be able to afford the debt and the modest lifestyle that the possession of a college degree has promised for so long.

 

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