America must invest in a skilled workforce

The U.S. economy is healing. Unemployment is at a six-year low. Corporate earnings growth is accelerating. Major stock market indices are experiencing record highs.

However, as Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen told Congress this month “significant slack remains” in the labor market and “too many Americans remain unemployed.” The latest long-term projections from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) show U.S. growth is likely to be in the 2 percent range for years to come, well shy of what we are capable of as a nation.

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America can and must do better. Maintaining our competitive edge begins with putting Americans back to work, and ensuring they have the skills they need to succeed. Fortunately education and job training are areas where policymakers can come together on a bipartisan basis.

This month President Obama signed into law bipartisan legislation that would modernize decades-old federal workforce training programs. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (H.R. 803) will increase on-the-job training opportunities, expand access to career counseling and bolster financial assistance for vocational education – helping to close a skills gap that by 2022 could reach 11 million workers without the requisite postsecondary education to succeed.

While job training is critical, there is no substitute for improving our education infrastructure to better prepare our nation’s youth for the jobs of tomorrow – particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

STEM jobs are projected to grow by 1 million between 2012 and 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), with over half of these positions in computer-related occupations. These jobs on average pay far more than other professions – more than double the median wage in 2013. The unemployment rate for Americans with STEM degrees is generally much lower than in the overall labor market – 3.5 percent in 2012 for individuals with degrees in computers and mathematics, and even lower for engineering and the physical sciences, according to the Census Bureau. There is simply no question that STEM education pays off.

Thankfully, there is movement in Washington on the STEM front as well. The House this month unanimously passed the STEM Education Act of 2014 (H.R. 5031), legislation that would prioritize computer science education within federal grant programs; promote National Science Foundation research and development of innovative, informal STEM learning programs outside the classroom; and broaden scholarship opportunities for colleges and universities to recruit and train prospective K-12 STEM teachers in underserved communities. 

The private sector must also commit to achieving and sustaining STEM literacy. The business community should work to reverse a perception among young people that technology is boring and intimidating. We know the jobs of today and tomorrow require computer skills. The Census Bureau reports that nearly three-fourths of individuals with STEM degrees end up going into a different field. While this figure shows the benefits of a STEM degree in and of itself, it also demonstrates we must do more to make a STEM career an end itself, not just the means to an end. Only by enabling our students to be lifelong learners and innovators will we begin to meet the demand for skilled workers. As Obama said in 2009, our young people should be encouraged “to be makers of things, not just consumers of things.”

At Cognizant, our “Making the Future” program is one example of how American companies can invest in educational initiatives designed to promote learning opportunities that are stimulating, enriching and fun. The STEM Education Act addresses the reality that students spend only 20 percent of their time in school.  Evidence continues to mount that quality after-school, weekend and summer programs can turn out-of-school time into a positive learning opportunity, helping constructively fill the 80% of waking hours that young people are not in school.

At the White House’s first-ever “Maker Faire” in June, Cognizant committed to tripling the size of our “Making” program by 2017, providing 1.5 million program hours for 25,000 children in 200 U.S. communities. A study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that “Making” activities like ours have made a real difference in terms of improving interest in STEM and fostering creative thinking and problem solving, as well as bolstering kids’ confidence in their ability to be successful in STEM careers.

America can and must invest in a skilled workforce. This requires both new legislation and new corporate investments. Together, the government and private sector can help our nation’s youth discover the magic of making, while helping Americans build their skills for the jobs of today and tomorrow.

Schwartz is executive vice president and chief legal and corporate affairs officer at Cognizant (NASDAQ: CTSH), a leading provider of consulting, information technology and business process services headquartered in Teaneck, N.J.