Prepare today for jobs of tomorrow

America is at a crossroads.  We are slowly recovering from one of the worst economic crises in our history, and our future prosperity will be determined not by heavy manufacturing but by heavy innovation. 

Yet we are not making the investments we need to train our young people in the skills and knowledge necessary to be leaders in innovation and technology.  For instance, experts predict more than 75 percent of jobs in America in the next decade will require some technology skills, but only 13 percent of American adults surveyed in 2006 were proficient in the knowledge and skills needed to search, comprehend and use information. We also know that only about 15 percent of U.S. college undergraduates pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) — compared with more than half of students in China. That is not sustainable. 

Today we face a choice: continue to amble along hoping things work out, or dig deep to make the serious commitment to science and math education and digital literacy training that our workers will need to succeed in the 21st century global economy.

The good news is that we have faced this choice before.  I have experienced this in my own life.  I grew up in a family that was very focused on education. My father was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D in physical chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, and he gave me a chemistry set every year for Christmas.  But it was not just my parents who emphasized math and science; our president did, too.  

This was during the height of the Cold War and the age of Sputnik, when the Russians had demonstrated so clearly that technology would drive progress in that century and the United States had to gear up and compete or fall behind. President Eisenhower asked us to rise to the challenge of that perilous moment, and America did: We won the space race and entered the greatest period of economic expansion in history.

Although my parents did everything they could to lead me into a career in science and math, I didn’t go that route – not every child will or should.  But I did resolve to support our scientists and innovators in ways that make sense for me, a commitment that led me to work at Microsoft.

Today, we are fortunate there will probably be no Sputnik moment – no evidence of our failings streaking across the sky.  But we certainly need a Sputnik-style response. As John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has said, “America needs a world-class STEM workforce to address the grand challenges of the 21st century, such as developing clean sources of energy that reduce our dependence on foreign oil and discovering cures for cancer.”  But if these are the jobs of the future, we are not yet doing enough to support our workforce of the future.

We are fortunate again to have a president who embraces science and technology. President Barack Obama has set a goal of spending 3 percent of U.S. GDP on research and development.  This exceeds the amount invested at the height of the space race.  And the president’s 2011 budget calls for $300 million – an increase of 66 percent – for investments in STEM to prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Even as our government does more, the private sector must also step up. 

We at Microsoft are committed to supporting future innovation.  This week, we hosted the eighth annual Imagine Cup U.S. Finals here in Washington, DC.  The Imagine Cup encourages young people to develop technologies to help achieve the United Nation’s eight Millennium Development Goals, ranging from halving extreme poverty to providing universal primary education. For example, the projects include:

• Technological solutions such as a mobile and Web message alert system, developed by a team of women from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and DePauw University, to inform users when they are in a neighborhood that is a scene of a recent assault and the location of that assault. 

• A software solution, developed at Wayne State University, to connect hospitals around the globe to a medical information system to improve medical and educational standards for medical students and staff who lack access to medical resources.

• A social networking application, developed at Utah State University, to connect entrepreneurs with investors to make micro-finance loans.

The Imagine Cup is not just about giving opportunities to American students, it is about finding good ideas that can change the world.  In fact, after the U.S. finals, there will be a global competition held in Warsaw, Poland. Today, America’s students are not only competing with each other; they are competing with the rising stars of India, China, Africa and elsewhere.

We are proud of this competition and the teams that collaborated on it – but it will take more to create a culture that rewards education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It’s time once again for parents to invest more in chemistry sets,  and it’s time for America to invest more in science and math and the next generation of American jobs.

Humphries is the managing director of federal government affairs at Microsoft and based in Washington, DC.