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The Innovation Premium on Today's Workforce

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July 19th, 2012
By Brian K. Fitzgerald, Chief Executive Officer, BHEF

June’s unemployment report suggested the underlying weakness of the recovery from the Great Recession. Yet, the preoccupation in the media on the jobless numbers belies an equally significant problem. While 12 million Americans look for work, more than 3 million jobs remain unfilled, and STEM jobs, which will grow by 17 percent this decade, are the hardest jobs to fill. The inability to fill these jobs hits at the core of the U.S. economy and an essential ingredient for competitiveness: innovation.

BHEF’s business members have repeatedly emphasized the demands of the global economy and how they have fundamentally increased the competitive challenges facing U.S. business, the economy and the U.S. workforce. Members have reflected upon the premium that global economic integration places on innovation and the demands innovation places on organizations and workers, fundamentally altering the workforce, and the skills needed to thrive.

This innovation premium reflects the increasing complexity of the problems and challenges that businesses are required to solve today and the pace at which these solutions must be brought to market. The demand for innovation is not limited to new products. Successful companies must innovate throughout the organization—in R & D, in product design and engineering, in supply chain and manufacturing, and in finance and marketing.

But an essential, often undervalued ingredient is a highly educated and skilled workforce, because innovation in turn requires increased emphasis on learning organizations where employees are lifelong learners. Workers must not only possess exceptional technical skills, but also the so-called soft skills, the 21st century workplace competencies, and also must be able to develop new skills while maintaining existing ones.

Unfortunately, we find that relatively few students are adequately prepared for college and the workplace, and even fewer high school and college graduates are interested in high-demand fields that fuel the innovation economy.

Our members believe that we cannot wait for future workforce solutions. Rather, we must create the future with innovative and effective relationships among corporations and colleges. This nexus of education and workforce and successful solutions to an often ineffective and uneasy relationship requires new approaches for deliberate and deeper collaborations. BHEF’s business and academic leaders have teamed to develop very unique and powerful solutions to these challenges.

Less than a month ago, BHEF members presented a dozen solutions— —to Congress and the Administration at marquee events on Capitol Hill and the White House. Initiatives focusing on the critical high-demand fields are taking shape in California, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Additionally, BHEF is collaborating with key Federal agencies to connect these regional initiatives with their workforce and mission outcomes. Several BHEF business and academic members recently participated in the U.S. News and World Report STEM Solution Summit to discuss the nature of their collaboration to improve STEM undergraduate outcomes.

These workforce projects are only one component of BHEF’s national strategy to resolve our nation’s workforce challenges. During our meeting at the White House, we presented an Open Letter to the President as a “down payment” on the one million STEM graduates called for by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) by 2020. This document is the mission statement of BHEF’s National STEM Undergraduate Partnership, which is composed of our nation’s top academic and industry associations: AIA, ACS, ACE, ASEE, AAU, APLU, NDIA, ONR, and TechNet. Together, we have committed to the following goals: to increase the number, rate, and diversity of undergraduates in STEM disciplines; to better align undergraduate education (including community college education) with STEM industry workforce needs in key strategic areas; and, finally, to identify roles for academic, industry, and government organizations in advancing and evaluating comprehensive and systemic reform in undergraduate STEM education and workforce development.

Clearly, this mobilization marks the most deliberate alignment between industry and higher education around undergraduate education (particularly for the first two years of college) to date by organizations that can create an action-agenda to increase the size and diversity of the nation’s STEM workforce.

Growing the American innovation workforce will require government, industry and higher education to play unique and mutually reinforcing roles. For its part, BHEF members and national partners will scale measurable solutions to create the educated, skilled 21st century workforce targeted on the highest demand jobs.

Brian K. Fitzgerald is CEO of the Business-Higher Education Forum. He recently led an expert panel at the U.S. News STEM Solutions Summit in Dallas, TX. You can view the session here .


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