10 Steps for Closing the IT Skills Gap

For nearly 60 years, millions of Americans have heard from thousands of sources that the American education system, especially how it teaches math and science, is broken. Here's what we can do about it.

America is facing a national education deficit. As a country, we spend more than a half trillion dollars each year on public education and get back little in return. This deficit poses a serious threat to our future.

But all is not lost -- yet. Here are 10 things that America, and America's IT executives, need, can, and should do to ensure the future competitiveness and survival of our country.

This slideshow was adapted from the book The U.S. Technology Skills Gap: What Every Technology Executive Must Know to Save America's Future by Gary Beach, Published July, 2013 by Wiley.

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1. Create a Long-Term National Education Strategy

America needs a long-term national education strategy that will deliver a singular result: that the United States will have the most innovative and most inventive workforce in the world by 2030. This workforce must be the best in the world at thinking critically, collaborating, and being highly analytic.

At present, no long-term national education strategy document exists. We have laws like the America COMPETES Act, which offers scores of great ideas our nation could do. But the problem with such a legislative provision is that it must be funded, and that depends on the reauthorization whims of Congress.

We can, and must, do better.

2. Determine Accountability for the National Education Strategy

Once a national education strategy is set and the benchmarks are agreed upon, there remains a thorny issue: Who is accountable to see it through? The commission? The president? The secretary of education? Business and academic leaders? The 535 members of Congress? The 50 state governors? The 14,000 school superintendents? The 99,000 public school principals? The 3.5 million teachers? The teacher unions? The tens of millions of parents of school-age children? Or the 49,266,000 million kids themselves?

Here's who I think should be in on the accountability for a successful implementation of the national education strategy: Governors, business leaders, parents, and students.

Who's out? The president, Congress, and teacher unions.

3. Innovation Must Be "US"

To regain its top perch as the world's leading innovative country, the United States must increase its funding commitment to basic research and make sure those institutions receiving the funds use it for research and development, not overhead. It's that simple.

My favorite innovation benchmark is the annual country-by-country report on triadic patents—patents that are simultaneously approved in the United States, the European Union, and Japan -- found on the OECD web site. The United States does a mediocre job with triadic patents, but China is among the worst. This gives the United States a strong opportunity to once again become the world's most innovative country.

4. Hire the Best Teachers

A McKinsey & Company survey found that relatively small countries like Finland, South Korea, and Singapore continue to be among the best-performing countries in international math and science assessment tests because they recruit new teachers only from the top 30 percent of the country's college graduates.

It is the polar opposite in the United States, where only 30 percent of new teachers are among the top college graduates.

Why do America's best and brightest college graduates shun careers as teachers? Money. The study found that a minimum starting salary of $65,000 was the tipping point to get the top U.S. college graduates to consider careers in teaching.

5. Create 50 State Education Trust Funds

Every time you buy gasoline you pay into a national fund known as the Highway Trust Fund, a usage tax intended to pay for road maintenance and construction. It's simple and straightforward: You drive, you pay (unless you are driving an electric car).

When I read the McKinsey & Company report's claim that $65,000 was the tipping point to entice America's best college graduates to teach, I came up with an idea: Create 50 state education trust funds to pay for the extra money needed to move the starting salary to $65,000 for any new teacher in America, whether he or she teaches science, math, English, reading, or history!

6. America Needs More Second-Career Math and Science Teachers

A significant challenge facing math and science education in the United States is the high percentage of math and science teachers, particularly in middle school, who teach math and science out of field, which means that they have no undergraduate or graduate STEM degree.

The IBM's Transition to Teaching program is an excellent model that any business can emulate to help employees, usually with 20 or more years of service to the company and possessing a STEM degree, to transition into a second career as a math or science teacher.

Teach for America, the nonprofit group that places college graduates in teaching positions in urban and rural areas across the U.S., is also actively recruiting secondcareer candidates.

7. Free the Best Teachers from Zip Code Jail

Imagine a day in the life of the best middle school math teacher in America. This superstar probably teaches six classes of 25 students a day, thus working directly with only 150 students each school year. What a dramatic waste of talent. I call this "zip code jail."

The 2000 report Before It's Too Late recommended the creation of 15 teaching academies, spread across the country, where great teachers could meet and share ideas about teaching methods with proven results. We also learned about the Khan Academy, a highly popular online teaching model. Why not combine these two ideas such that the best middle school math and science teachers could collaborate on creating online math and science lessons.

8. Create IT Job Ambassadors

I want every IT professional reading this book to do meet with your local middle school or high school guidance counselor. Borrowing from the Massachusetts-based DIGITS program, become IT job ambassadors.

At the meeting, explain what an IT worker does for a living and cite Bureau of Labor statistics that report job employment trends in the IT industry for the coming decade. Offer your willingness to mentor a student interested in learning more about the IT profession. Explain to the guidance counselor about the great opportunities for women in STEM careers.

9. Grades 13 and 14 Are Critically Important

Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute has noted that by 2020, 66 percent of all jobs in America will require an individual to have a postsecondary degree.

But "postsecondary" doesn't necessarily mean 4-year college. The key issue in this recommendation is that 12 grades are no longer enough. Tens of millions of future jobs in our country will demand grade 13 and grade 14 STEM skills.

Groups like Skills USA, CompTIA, and the remarkably innovative P-TECH go a long way toward meeting that demand.

10. The Five Cs Must Join the Three Rs

The five Cs: critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, and confidence should be taught as basics in our nation's curriculum, starting in kindergarten, along with reading, writing, and arithmetic.

I have seen the outstanding work that groups like the Junior FIRST Lego League, Engineering Is Elementary, and the Tech Corps have done taking basic STEM principles to grades one through three.

I believe strongly that the American education system should consider beginning to teach math and basic science as individual subjects starting in third grade.

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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