By Tom Still
MADISON – Four separate but ultimately connected events help to explain Wisconsin’s efforts to compete in a changing world:
n Speaking to business leaders in Milwaukee, Hewlett-Packard vice president Kevin Gilroy said the “hypercompetitive global economy” has made it difficult for companies to stand out in the crowd. The worldwide “digital transformation” means factors such as distance, scale and working capital are no longer barriers to entry in business. “It doesn’t matter if you’re doing business in Manila, Madrid or Milwaukee … the need to innovate in today’s marketplace never ends.”
n In a Madison meeting, the co-founder of Project Lead the Way explained why his rigorous pre-engineering program for middle- and high-school students has grown to include 1,400 schools in 44 states, including 32 in Wisconsin. “The competition for tomorrow’s jobs isn’t coming from New York or Michigan,” educator Dick Blais said, “but from China and India.”
n At a meeting of the Wisconsin Technology Council board in RiverFalls, entrepreneur Angel Zimmerman described Sajan, a family firm that is growing at a brisk pace. Sajan’s core business? It owns an algorithm that helps translate web sites and other electronic communications into foreign languages.
n At the UW-Madison College of Engineering, Dean Paul Peercy recently put members of the college’s Industrial Advisory Board through exercises that will help him produce engineering graduates for a changing global market. The conclusion: Innovative engineers who can communicate and who have “global skills” will be at a premium.
Across Wisconsin, business and education leaders are waking up to the fact that competing in the 21st century economy is no longer an automatic “win-win” for America. Globalization has collapsed time and distance and introduced the new reality that people living half a world away may be able to do your job cheaper, and perhaps just as well.
Columnist Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times calls it the new “flat world.” Simply put, the leveling of the global economic playing field due to technology, democratization and innovation is allowing more people from more places to compete – and to collaborate. “When the world is flat,” Friedman wrote, “you can innovate without having to emigrate.”
Americans like to think of themselves as innovators, and with good reason. The nation still leads the world in most categories – and, in fact, launched the digital revolution that has changed everything. But we are losing our edge.
In 1975, the United States was third among all nations in the percentage of 18-to-24-year-olds who earned science and engineering degrees. Today, it ranks 17th, behind Taiwan and South Korea, Ireland and Italy. Friedman and unless are sounding the alarm: Unless that slide in scientific competency is reversed, the nation’s economic welfare and security will be threatened.
In Wisconsin, the responses have been heartening. Gov. Jim Doyle has proposed tougher math and science graduation requirements for Wisconsin students, and initiatives such as “Project Lead the Way” are catching on, despite extra costs.
As the National Science Board warned last year, the United States must do a better job of growing its own math, science and engineering graduates. In the past, bright foreigners beat a path to our door and filled any gap produced by a lack of home-grown grads. That outside flow is threatened today because of new limits on the entry of highly educated foreigners and more intense global competition for their skills. Visas and visa applications for students, exchange visitors and highly skilled foreigners have dropped sharply since 2001.
At the same time, many Asian and European nations have realized that science and technology are crucial to their economic growth. They are better prepared to offer their best and brightest educational opportunities, and careers, at home.
The result is a squeeze play – fewer American students are signing up for math and science, and fewer foreigners are filling the gap. The result is a shortage of skilled workers in the very fields that are driving the 21st century economy.
In the international competition to produce the most “knowledge workers,” America is falling behind. As a result, the world economy is getting flatter by the day. Unless the United States responds by turning out more kids who want to be engineers and scientists, and unless our businesses continue to innovate, the world will become flatter still. Wisconsin can and must do what it can to keep the world round.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council in Madison. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal.