This article ran in the Oregonian, Saturday, October 23, 2010.
Arming our kids for the future
Published: Friday, October 22, 2010, 4:00 PM
In 2011, an 18-year-long wave of baby boomer retirement begins. While pundits and politicians are focused on the cost of this enormous population collecting Social Security and Medicare, they’re overlooking the fact that the next generation of employees to fill these positions are being left behind. Most assume these roles will be easily filled given the high levels of unemployment since the recession, but it’s not that easy. Preparing a highly skilled work force, especially for positions in engineering and technology, requires long-term planning. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen without time and support. But we’re running out of time, especially when you consider that 50 percent of our current engineering work force is about to retire.
If Oregon and America are to succeed in a global economy, we need to create savvy next-generation entrepreneurs who will revitalize us with new business ideas and help fuel our existing work force. Northwest powerhouse companies like Microsoft, Starbucks and UPS were all started by entrepreneurs in their late teens and early 20s. The biggest employers in our state, with some of the best-paid jobs to offer — like Intel, Mentor Graphics and Autodesk, for example — are looking for people with training and knowledge in math, science, engineering, computers and technology.
Unfortunately, the standards that Oregon’s educational system holds for our students in science, math, technology and engineering just aren’t matching up to what our state’s businesses are looking for.
As John Tapogna, president of ECONorthwest, said, “Businesses will blow off Oregon if the state can’t produce an educated work force and good public schools for workers’ children. … As the state spends less on education, it cuts the key source of its future prosperity” (“Hard choices: Oregon schools, colleges confront budget shortfalls with few options,” Sept. 29).
We need to make sure our children graduate from high school armed with the tools they’ll need to be successful in the world of business. We also need to inspire them to go into fields that are technically challenging, but which will drive the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Let’s face it: Getting young people to embrace the more technical subjects is a significant challenge in a society where Hollywood celebrities tend to serve as primary role models and excelling at these subjects carries a “geek” stigma. Proving to kids that algebra or physics will be useful in the real world isn’t easy, but it needs to be done. We must not limit enthusiasm for science and math to kids in Advanced Placement classes who are raised by an Intel mom or Boeing dad. Everyone, regardless of class, race, age or status, should have the right tools readily available to keep up with the growing pace of technology.
One way to get kids engaged in these more technical subjects is through FIRST, which stands for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. FIRST creates a fun and stimulating environment using robots in a sports-like forum that allows for healthy competition and even healthier teamwork. Not only do the kids learn hands-on technical skills, but they also learn communication and collaboration skills, which are critical in the world of business. Programs like FIRST pay off: 55 out of 100 FIRST Robotics Competition students pursue degrees in engineering or science (compared with only 28 out of 100 who pursue such careers if they have not had a FIRST experience).
New opportunities are right in front of us to take advantage of federal dollars and encourage educators to explore fresh ideas to keep our students engaged. Other states in the U.S. are moving quickly toward increasing education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — known as STEM. They’re recognizing the long-term value of investing time and support in these programs. Washington state legislators and Gov. Chris Gregoire doubled this year’s FIRST budget for middle and high schools to $300,000, partly because they understand that investing in STEM education will eventually boost the state’s vibrant technology-based work force. Washington companies like Microsoft and Boeing have been working with these legislators on solutions to the looming work force crisis. Oregon needs to meet this level of commitment, recognizing that our smart, energetic students are willing to rise to any challenge when they’re backed up by adults who believe in them.
A child’s world is only as big as its parents, friends and community make it. Outside of funding, what a program like FIRST needs most are volunteers, mentors, teachers and support from school administrators to keep it going. With a little time and encouragement, every single one of us can make a difference by showing our kids not only how to take advantage of but to excel in the opportunities ahead of them. After all, the inspiration our youth experience while in the four years in high school directly impacts their next 45 years in the work force.
Debra Mumm-Hill is Northwest regional director of FIRST.