By Tom Still

MADISON – At the UW-Madison College of Engineering, Dean Paul Peercy and his faculty are weighing ideas for ensuring that today’s engineering education includes what it takes to be competitive in today’s increasingly global environment.

At the University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin Technical College System, a joint planning group is debating how to graduate more people with four-year baccalaureate degrees – and in what disciplines those degrees should be focused.

Those are two examples of the growing concern among Wisconsin educators, especially at the university and tech college levels, that the state isn’t producing enough highly skilled graduates for a 21st century workforce. Unless Wisconsin can produce or attract more technically skilled workers, it will fail in its bid to become a center of global competition.

“Wisconsin needs a knowledge strategy to be competitive in the modern knowledge-based, global economy,” wrote UW System President Katharine Lyall in “Vision 2020: A Model Wisconsin Economy,” a publication of the Wisconsin Technology Council. “Wisconsin’s traditional industries that rely on inputs of land, labor and capital are declining ナ We must replace them with high-paying jobs in new, high-technology businesses.”

Replacing those jobs requires having enough skilled graduates to fill emerging needs, and there are signs Wisconsin is falling short. To simply meet the U.S. average of college graduates and post-graduates in its workforce, Wisconsin must add 150,000 four-year grads and another 150,000 post-graduates over the next 20 years. Many, if not most, of those graduates must be trained for jobs in critical areas of science and innovation.

Wisconsin is far from alone among the 50 states in its need for more science-based graduates. In recent reports by the New York Times and the National Science Foundation, experts concluded that the United States has started to lose its worldwide dominance in the sciences. Foreign advances in basic science now often rival or even exceed those in the United States, based on such key indicators as prizes awarded to American scientists, patents and the number of papers published in major professional journals.

“The rest of the world is catching up,” said John Jankowski, senior analyst at the NSF, the federal agency that tracks science trends. “Science excellence is no longer the domain of just the U.S.”

Here are some statistics reported by the New York Times:

 The U.S. share of its own industrial patents has fallen steadily over the decades and now stands at 52 percent.
 Physical Review, a series of top physics journals, recently tracked a reversal in which American paper, in two decades, fell from a majority to a minority. Last year the total was 29 percent, down from 61 percent in 1983.
 The American share of Nobel Prizes, after peaking from the 1960s to the 1990s, has fallen in the 200s to about half, 51 percent.

There are some logical explanations. For example, American scientists tend to work more in teams, so published papers often reflect the work of larger groups of researchers than may be common in other nations. Still, there is mounting concern that the United States may be losing its scientific and innovation edge – at precisely the time when science and innovation are driving the economy.

It’s not a panic-button situation, yet. But it’s important that American colleges and universities rise to the challenge, and that public schools across the nation do a better job of preparing K-12 students for a future that will be more technically demanding. That’s especially true for K-12 children who are poor or come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The supply of technically trained workers in America would soar if we simply used the young people we already have to their highest potential.

Wisconsin schools, tech colleges and universities have what it takes to meet the demand. What’s required is a sense of urgency about the increasing competition from far beyond our borders.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.