What we can do for the next generation

February 7

Did you know that 50 percent of the jobs in America today didn’t exist 25 years ago? And that 80 percent of the jobs students will fill in the future don’t exist today?

These mind-boggling statistics require us to think about the steps we must take today to ensure the next generation is prepared for jobs which don’t currently exist.

Today, no matter what business you are in, technology, problem-solving and data analytics are at the heart of it.

Want to build a car? The average car has 15,000 different computer systems today.

Want to go into medicine? Every medical profession depends on advanced imaging, diagnostics or testing — and soon, the human genome will open up a whole new world of personalized medicine that tests, uses and applies DNA in new ways.

Even as new professions are appearing, we know that over the next decade, 15 of the 20 fastest-growing jobs in America are going to be in science, technology, engineering or math. Within five years, there will be another 2.4 million STEM job openings in America alone.

At a time when the information age is enabling so much innovation at the intersection of different disciplines — be it engineering or design, chemistry or fashion, or physics and architecture — success depends on fluency and training beyond the traditional disciplines.

We can no longer continue to educate students with the same approach we used 20 years ago, and none of us can be disengaged from what this means for our country.

So what can we do?

It’s going to take a new approach and a new kind of responsibility from everyone. Here are three ideas:

First, we need to get away from the idea that every high-wage job requires a four-year degree. It does not.

I know that a four-year education is still the dream. But in truth, two years of targeted training can help anyone land a good job at a good salary.

At Siemens, we’ve hired thousands of people in the United States over the past five years into positions that require only a two-year degree. These positions pay competitive wages, and our nation wants more of them to continue to grow the middle class.

Companies such as Siemens are uniquely positioned to create technical skills training that leads to high-paying jobs. We know the precise combination of science, technology, engineering and math skills necessary to run our technology and manufacturing process. There are many businesses today, from Facebook to Intel to AT&T, which are also taking on that responsibility as well.

Second, business needs to recognize that America doesn’t just have a skills gap, it has a training gap.

Until we put some of the burden on those who train rather than those who need to be trained, we will never solve it.

Wharton professor Peter Cappelli has some fascinating data in his book, “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs.”

In 1979, young U.S. workers received an average of 100 hours of training per year. By 1995, studies found that the average company offered just under 11 hours of training per year.

By 2011, Accenture found that only 21 percent of all U.S. employees had received any employer-provided training in the past five years. In other words, 80 percent of today’s workforce is working jobs with little to no instruction since before the iPhone was invented.

Business, educators and governments working together are best positioned to develop the training necessary to create the next generation of workers, and to provide precisely the kinds of internships and apprenticeships that will create real skills training.

Third, we need to make experiential learning a greater focus of our colleges and universities – and even our high schools.

Albert Einstein once said that “the only source of knowledge is experience.”

In an evaluation of 29 countries based on how much they teach work-based skills in high school, the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development ranked the United States dead last.

Our students will never gain the skills they need if they spend all their time sitting in lectures on campus. In the decade ahead, we need to focus on ways that we can make in-the-workplace training a central part of education, beginning before college, while students are still in high school.

At our gas and steam turbine manufacturing plant in Charlotte, N.C., we are creating our own pipeline of skilled workers through a training program established in partnership with Central Piedmont Community College.

The program begins with high school and ends with students earning a two-year degree in mechatronics. This degree is especially valuable in today’s workforce as more and more of these computer and engineering skills are necessary in today’s advanced manufacturing plants.

One of the things America has always done to create wealth for the next generation is recognize where global commerce is going, and steer our national priorities in a direction to help the next generation lead it. We did it with universal primary and secondary education in the 19th century. We did it with research and development in the ’50s and ’60s. We did it with computers and information technology in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

This is where the world is going. If we don’t get this right, we won’t just short-circuit America’s competitive potential: We’ll be dooming our children from ever achieving the American Dream as we’ve known it. But if we can turn that potential into leadership, we can create growth and opportunity for the next generation.

Eric A. Spiegel is president and chief executive of District-based Siemens USA . This commentary is adapted from a post he published on LinkedIn.

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