The United States is slipping. By many criteria that count,
it is no longer the world leader. The trade and budget deficits, for example,
have weakened the US's position relative to its overseas partners and
competitors. We are losing ground to other nations in the fielding of new
technologies. Foreigners are buying and controlling US real estate, farmland,
and companies. The defense industrial base is weak and getting weaker.
Last year, the Aerospace Education Foundation sounded the
alert about the defense industrial base in a major report, "Lifeline in
Danger." A companion study, to be published by the Foundation later this
year, will examine a related problem that is just as alarming, if not more so.
The US technical manpower base is in deep trouble. The
problem is already apparent in the schools, in the workplace, and elsewhere.
"A Nation at Risk," produced six years ago by the National
Commission on Excellence in Education, described the situation in stark
language: "The educational foundations of our society are . . . being
eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a
nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to
occur—others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments."
The report went on: "If an unfriendly foreign power
had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that
exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we
have allowed this to happen to ourselves.
"History is not kind to idlers," the report
continued. Pointing out that we now live among "determined, well-educated,
and strongly motivated competitors," it made three quick and pertinent
competition comparisons: Japanese automobiles, South Korean steel mills, and German
machine tools. "These developments signify a redistribution of trained
capability throughout the globe. Knowledge, learning, information, and skilled
intelligence are the new raw materials of international commerce." The
report summarized, "Learning is the indispensable investment required
for success in the 'information age' we are entering."
Three years later, a 1986 study by the US Census Bureau
looked at the functional illiteracy rate, which at that time stood at about
thirty percent of the population. The study predicted that, if 1986 trends
continued, functional illiteracy in the general population of the US would
reach seventy percent by the year 2001. That means in less than twelve years,
no matter what their academic records, seventy percent of the population will
fall short of functioning as productive members of society.
Still at Risk
Five years after "A Nation at Risk" appeared,
Secretary of Education William J. Bennett assessed America's educational
progress. In 1988, he said, "We are doing better than we were in 1983 . .
. but we are certainly not doing well enough, and we are not doing well enough
fast enough. We are still at risk."
Current examples of educational deficiencies abound. In
early 1988, the New York Telephone Co. tested 22,880 applicants for 2,000
entry-level jobs. The jobs did not require a high school diploma. Eighty-four
percent of the applicants failed the examination. In July of that year,
Secretary of Commerce C. William Verity wrote in "Building a Quality Workforce,"
a joint initiative of the Departments of Commerce, Education, and Labor:
"At a time when more and more jobs require at least basic proficiency in
English comprehension and mathematics, our young entrants into the labor force
are proving to be disturbingly deficient in these skills, not to mention
knowledge in such areas as science, geography, and foreign languages."
In March 1989, the Wall Street Journal looked at education
in big cities. It reported that in some of Philadelphia's inner-city schools
the dropout rate is as high as sixty percent. Nationwide, the Journal found
that 3,800 teenagers drop out of school each day. Those dropouts are generally
lost to the labor market. They are not competitive candidates for jobs that
count; in most respects, they are incapable of entering the work force.
Louis V. Gerstner, a former president of American Express
Co., commented recently on the lamentable quality of the entry-level work
force. Writing in the Washington Post (March 20, 1989), he noted "good
news and bad news." The good news, Mr. Gerstner said, is that American
Express will be hiring a minimum of 75,000 people over the next five years.
The bad news is that the company may not be able to find them. These are
entry-level jobs; yet many applicants can barely write, are ignorant of
geography, and cannot cope with simple mathematics.
Mathematics is the key to opportunity everywhere. Phillip
A. Griffiths, Chairman of the Board on Mathematical Sciences and professor of
mathematics at Duke University, says, "Those who do not learn basic
mathematics problem-solving skills will be left behind in the world of the
future. And this is just as true for nations as it is for individuals."
Mr. Griffiths made that statement at the conference releasing the report
"Everybody Counts" in January 1989. The report was sponsored by the
National Research Council as part of its response to the urgent national need
to revitalize mathematics and science education. Frank Press, Chairman of the
Research Council, stressed how crucial it is "for science, technology, and
the economy of the nation that all students receive high-quality education in
In its early paragraphs, the report says, "More than
ever before, Americans need to think for a living; more than ever before, they
need to think mathematically. Yet, for lack of mathematical power, many of
today's students are not prepared for tomorrow's jobs. In fact, many are not
even prepared for today's jobs." Then it says, "Wake up, America! Your
children are at risk."
Perhaps the US experience is not unique; maybe educational
achievement levels are slipping worldwide. The evidence suggests otherwise.
Comparing US education levels with those in other countries adds cause for
concern. Consider the "International Science Report Card," issued in
1988 by the National Science Teachers Association (see chart below). The
report was based on standardized tests administered to students in the United
States and twenty-three other countries. Students at the fifth-, ninth-, and
twelfth-grade levels were tested. By 1988, data on the US and most other
countries had been analyzed and included in the report.
At the fifth-grade level, US students ranked eighth among
fifteen countries. The ninth-grade students ranked lower—fifteenth place. Even
worse news came from testing the twelfth-grade advanced-science students. For
example, US twelfth-graders completing a second year of biology ranked
fourteenth among the fourteen countries whose data were analyzed—dead last. In
other sciences the US results were slightly better, but not encouraging. US
twelfth-grade students with two years of chemistry ranked eleventh among
thirteen countries; in physics, the comparable result was ninth of thirteen.
Jobs and Skills
Educational shortcomings would be lamentable enough in a
static situation, but the circumstances are not static. The economy and workplace
are changing rapidly, and the pace of change is accelerating. As Secretary
Verity commented in "Building a Quality Workforce," "The 'basic
skills gap' between what business needs and the qualifications of the
entry-level workers available to business is widening."
Secretary Verity and his colleagues cited examples of the
pace of change. The Commerce Department noted that about ninety percent of
all scientific knowledge has been generated in the last thirty years. It
estimated that the pool of knowledge will double in the next ten to fifteen
years. Product life cycles also shrink, requiring change and adaptability. The
Commerce Department says that life cycles for electronics products
"already have collapsed to three to five years" and that product life
cycles rarely will exceed five to ten years in other industries.
The rapid change will demand a flexible and adaptable work
force. "Building a Quality Workforce" quotes David Kearns, CEO of Xerox:
"Future jobs will be restructured about every seven years, and work and
learning will be inseparable." The Bureau of Labor Statistics
underscores the need for education in the future. It forecasts that more than
half of all new jobs created between 1984 and 2000 will require some
education beyond high school, and almost a third will be filled by college
graduates. Today, only twenty-two percent of all occupations require a college
Yet while the number of new jobs is growing (16,000,000
created between 1982 and 1988, says the Labor Department), the number of new
entrants is shrinking. The group of people between sixteen and twenty-four
years of age has been the traditional source of new workers. But that group is
dwindling as the effects of the post-baby-boom era begin to take hold; fewer
mothers and fewer babies per mother translate into a smaller future labor
pool. The Hudson Institute, in its "Workforce 2000" report, projected
the trend in these terms:
• Decline in population growth means an older work force,
with average age of workers increasing from thirty-six to thirty-nine by the
• Workers aged sixteen to thirty-four accounted for half the
work force in 1985, but will be declining to less than forty percent by 2000.
• Eighty percent of new entrants into the work force will be
women, minorities, and immigrants.
Besides requiring a steady influx of entry-level workers,
companies in the aerospace and defense sectors also require midlevel and
senior men and women who are already qualified and productive. The ebb and flow
of defense contracts and new projects often require companies to add qualified
technical people to compete for new business or complete business on the
books. The companies must range far afield to find and hire them.
For example, listening to the car radio while stuck in
freeway traffic in Los Angeles, I heard a recruitment commercial for
Westinghouse Defense: "Come to beautiful Chesapeake Bay and work on
exciting projects in the land of pleasant living. Interviews being conducted
at the Century Marriott on Saturday." Back home a day later in the Baltimore-Washington
area, I heard a radio commercial broadcast for Rock well Autonetics:
"Join Rockwell at Newport Beach, Calif., where it's warm and pleasant, and
the prospects are challenging. Interviews Saturday at Crystal City."
"The Depth of
In March 1989, Boeing borrowed up to 670 skilled production
workers from its competitor Lockheed to fill orders for its 747-400 airliners.
Dean Thornton, president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said that borrowing
workers from Lockheed and other Boeing divisions showed "the depth of the
Boeing commitment to produce the 747-400s that meet all the quality and
technical expectations that our airline customers have." It also
demonstrated the acute shortage of skilled aircraft production workers in
Seattle and a surplus in Marietta, Ga., where Lockheed's C-SB work had wound
Other short-term remedies taken by aerospace companies
include bounties and hefty recruitment advertising. Aerospace companies in
Southern California offer bounties of up to $2,000 to employees who recruit
qualified people with the right skills. The mix of money spent on product and
recruitment advertising is changing to be more heavily weighted for recruiting
skilled people. But if a California firm hires engineers from Baltimore,
there is a hefty financial cost for moving the people and their families. In
addition, in more than half of working families, both spouses are employed.
That makes them reluctant to move without assurance that both will be employed
in the new situation.
Clearly, such actions are short-term fixes. Coordinated national
reforms are required for the long term.
In 1983, the authors of "A Nation at Risk"
recommended simple, straightforward, and lasting national reforms. Among them:
strengthen content to stress basics; adopt more rigorous standards and expectations;
devote more time to basics with better use of the school day, longer school
days, and lengthened school year; improve teaching and teachers; and provide
leadership and funding.
In his 1988 assessment of progress, Secretary Bennett said
that re forms face serious obstacles; among them, sheer bureaucratic inertia
from 100,000 school systems and determined opposition in different forms. One
group of opponents denies that things are as bad as they seem. A second group
admits that things are bad, but says that "society" or the
"system" needs to be altered.
"Today," Secretary Bennett said, "we hear
opposition by extortion: the false claim that to fix our, schools will first
require a fortune in new funding." Finally, he said, current opposition
to school reform "is manifested in the narrow, self-interested exercise
of political power in statehouse corridors and local school board
meetings." Sweeping national remedies may seem obvious, but as Secretary
Bennett pointed out, they are difficult to implement. Even successful
national programs require local participation as an element of success. What
is being done locally by industry and communities?
In many localities nationwide, industry, government, and
schools are working together to create improvement. They are not waiting for
national solutions. Take Cincinnati, for instance.
"Unless something is done, hundreds of children born
this year  in Cincinnati will grow up functionally illiterate and unemployable.
Almost half will never finish high school. We must work together to stop this
enormous waste of human potential in our community." In saying that, John
Pepper, the President of Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, was
emphasizing the need for business to do something about the forty percent
dropout rate in Cincinnati's public schools.
A partnership between business and education was developed
in January 1987. Called the "Cincinnati Youth Collaborative," it is
aimed specifically at dropout prevention. The CYC links hundreds of business
volunteers with scores of public and private sector organizations concerned
with youth. By working together, the CYC helps the system keep young people in
school and helps the schools prepare them better for the job market.
In Chicago, fifty companies have pooled resources to found
their own school, the Wall Street Journal reported in March 1989. The companies
hope their school will demonstrate that children in poverty can learn as well
as suburban children can. The tuition-free Corporate-Community School holds
classes year-round and tailors progress to the children's needs.
"Magnet schools" are another way for communities
to address two social needs at the same time, desegregation and educational
innovation. These schools have educational innovations that attract students
and parents. Their spaces are filled by racial quotas to ensure desegregation.
Prince George's County, Md., adjacent to Washington, D. C., has thirteen
programs in forty-seven schools, offering 1,500 openings. Parents form lines a
week before the openings are allotted, camping out on the spot to ensure their
children have a shot at a magnet slot.
Mr. Kearns of Xerox advocates reorganizing every public
school district with more than 2,500 children into a year-round universal
magnet system. In his restructuring, advocated in Winning the Brain Race
(coauthored with Denis P. Doyle), Mr. Kearns says the magnet schools
"would be free to implement new teaching strategies and learning methods.
. . . Principals and teachers would run their schools with complete academic
and administrative autonomy."
School magnets, like all magnets, are attracting forces.
Magnet schools attract controversy and criticism along with their appeal to parents
and students. Mary H. Metz, professor of education at the University of
Wisconsin, is an expert on magnet schools. She says they draw controversy
because they are different, and "they challenge a pervasive myth—that the
only way to achieve educational equality is through standardization." She
says that magnet schools draw political fire because they bring this tacit
contradiction (between standardization and diversity) to public consciousness.
Increasingly, industry is forced to make, rather than buy,
productive employees. In its report, "Workplace Basics, the Skills
Employers Want," the American Society for Training and Development stated
the basic lesson: "Employer interest in improving basic skills is driven
by economic concerns. When deficiencies affect the bottom line, employers
respond with training or replacement." But the replacement course is less
feasible, because the entry-worker pool is shallow and less trainable.
Consequently, employers' interest in providing training in basic workplace
skills is growing.
In Southern California, aerospace companies banded together
with community colleges nearly four years ago to develop curriculum guides for
seven occupations critical to their manufacturing operations: manufacturing
planner, tool designer, machine operator, machine maintenance worker, quality
control inspector, composites fabrication technician, and numerical controlled
programmer. Curriculum writers from more than twenty community colleges worked
in teams to convert industry requirements and input into workable instruction
Within eight months, the guides were ready for use in
classrooms across the region. In the process, industry and the colleges both
learned more about each others' needs. The project has proved successful in
practice. Students qualified for jobs the aerospace companies needed to fill,
and the colleges built a core of practical instructional experience usable for
other aerospace manufacturing jobs, as well as in other industries. Companies
involved (all members of the Southern California Aerospace Industry Education
Council) were McDonnell Douglas, Hughes Helicopters (now part of McDonnell
Douglas), Northrop, and Rockwell International.
Looking ahead, what can be done to arrest the decline in
America's intellectual capital? What can be done to preserve and improve its
technical manpower resources? Clearly, individual companies, school systems,
unions, and workers should not await magical national solutions. Those will be
a long time coming, if ever. Local initiatives show the most promise for
addressing local problems. The Cincinnati and Southern California cases are
examples of hundreds and perhaps thousands of local groups combining to
address the problems.
Whichever solutions are sought, unless effective action is
taken, the US will have a third strike to add to the trade and budget deficit
woes: the technical-manpower deficit. The time is late; the problem, already
critical, worsens daily.
How Many Engineers?
If your laboratory or your project has enough engineers for
the work at hand, there is no engineer shortage. However, if you don't have the
engineers you need, the shortage is acute. For the best national use of
technology and engineering talent, it is useful to know how many engineers of
which disciplines are available.
Unfortunately, the numbers vary. That is the conclusion of
John Alden of the American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES).
Reporting in Engineering Manpower Bulletin 92 (January 1989), Mr. Alden found
that the National Science Foundation (NSF) counted 2,634,900 engineers in the
US in 1986 (most recently compiled figures). However, the Bureau of Labor
Statistics counted 1.331.747—only about half as many.
Mr. Alden adjusted the NSF figures downward by deducting the
numbers of engineers unemployed or out of the labor force, employed but not in
engineering, primarily in management jobs, and in other categories. With those
adjustments, he squeezed the NSF total to 1,217,600. By Mr. Alden's
calculations, the actual number of practicing engineers is somewhere between
1,200,000 and 1,300,000.
F. Clifton Berry, Jr.,
is a former Editor in Chief of AIR FORCE
Magazine. He saw USAF service in the Berlin Airlift, 1948-49. Later, he was a
paratrooper and an officer in the 82d Airborne Division. He commanded airborne
and infantry units in the US and Korea and saw Vietnam combat as operations
officer of a light infantry brigade. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine was "Destroying Enemy
Armor" in the April '89 issue.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
AFA is closed on Monday for the President's Day holiday. The next Daily Report will be Tuesday, Feb. 20.
Tweets by @AirForceMag