The Next Frontier? The U.S. Needs IT Skills to Build a Smarter Planet

10/08/2012 07:06 pm ET | Updated Dec 09, 2012
  • Colin J. Parris PhD, General Manager, Power Systems, IBM Systems & Technology Group

It was in the 1950s and 1960s that the "Space Race" inspired the world and captivated students everywhere, as the then Soviet Union and the United States competed in a race to successfully launch and safely return the first manned space mission to the moon. As we know, the U.S. accomplished that feat on July 20, 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

Today, the United States faces an even greater challenge if it hopes to lead the race in creating a Smarter Planet. Just as in the 1950s and 1960s, we now need a new, inspired generation of mathematicians, scientists, engineers and technicians -- the people who will make a Smarter Planet possible.

Just as technology powered space exploration 60 years ago, technology is now powering the exploration of life-saving technology. Technology such as the world's fastest supercomputer installed at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. This technology -- the IBM Sequoia BlueGene/Q supercomputer -- has taken on the grand challenge of providing a 40-fold improvement in the prediction of earthquakes to help provide safe evacuation routes for citizens. In a different industry, the natural language technology that has powered IBM Watson is now addressing societal challenges and even some of today's most complex health care issues.

Organizations have also found success with tackling the complex issues head on by using expert integrated systems, which have also helped organizations reduce IT spending and operational complexities.

Teams of scientists and engineers around the world are already hard at work developing the next few generations of supercomputers, expert integrated systems and other technology, which will make a Smarter Planet possible. But what about the work that will need to be done tomorrow? How will we address the world's most complex issues in the future?

Unfortunately, the shortage of IT skills in the workforce and the next generation in the U.S. still leaves this question unanswered. Compared globally, the U.S. lags significantly. China produces five times as many graduates every year as the United States, while Europe produces three times as many.

Only 5 percent of today's U.S. workers are employed in science and engineering, even though those jobs are responsible for more than 50 percent of sustained economic expansion.

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 60 percent of the new jobs that will be created in the 21st century will require skills possessed by only 20 percent of the current workforce. Experts predict that 123 million high-skill, high-paying jobs will exist in 10 years, but just 50 million Americans will be qualified to take them.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that computer and information technology occupations in the U.S. are projected to grow by 22 percent, adding 758,800 new jobs by 2020. Where will the workers come from to fill those jobs?

As an engineer and executive within the industry, it worries me to see the number of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals within the U.S. has drastically declined. Four decades ago, about 40 percent of the world's scientists and engineers resided in the U.S. Today, that number has declined to 15 percent.

When we examine the pipeline of future innovators, the nation's 2011 graduating class achieved a reported 32 percent proficiency rate in math. African American students achieved 11 percent, Hispanic students 15 percent, and Native Americans, 16 percent according to the study, "Globally Challenged: Are U.S. students ready to compete?" from Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance. According to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs.

The need to resolve this deficit is great. To remain competitive globally and to build a Smarter Planet, we must adopt a focused approach to developing a stronger pipeline of STEM innovators, paying close attention to the significant role of women and underrepresented minorities in this pipeline.

Earth, the primary frontier, is waiting to be explored in newer and smarter ways. Let's do all that we can to nurture the next generation of innovators: STEM leaders who will build the technology that will ultimately power a Smarter Planet.

For more information about IBM Power technology, click here.

For more information on expert integrated systems and a Smarter Planet, click here.