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James Dyson

James Dyson

Posted: November 23, 2010 12:09 PM

Come the January inaugurations, the US can expect political disputes, policy shifts and perhaps the odd bit of compromise. If there's one issue where common ground must be found, it's education. It's a divisive and decisive issue where Republicans and Democrats must grit their teeth and work together to reform education and help the US regain its international competitive edge.

If the recession has proven anything, it's that the US can no longer rely on financial services and its boom-bust cycle of artificial wealth. America must return to industry: science, engineering and technology.

I say return, I should say rally. The US still leads the world in developing new technology. What's changed is the competition -- the international ante has been upped. China produces seven times as many engineering graduates as the US and will soon file more patents. Action is needed.

Future growth depends on having the best ideas and technology -- boosting overseas exports and cutting the deficit. There's a reason why Obama has visited India and David Cameron has visited China -- soon they'll be our biggest customers. We need to be ready.

But there's a problem. The US education system isn't producing enough scientists and engineers -- ideas people.

At school, educating students is costly, but math and science achievement is low. As a result, not enough people to pursue these subjects at college. The US is only 27th among developed nations in proportion of science and engineering graduates. In fact the US graduates twice as many visual and performing arts students as engineers. Hollywood isn't complaining about a lack of skilled workers but many engineering firms are.

Reform is required to equip young people with the right skills and put them in the right jobs. Inspire them.

It wouldn't be the first time the US retooled and rearmed its workforce. The USSR's launch of Sputnik inspired investment in scientists and engineers. (Today, US astronauts have to hitch a ride on Russian rockets because of budget limitations).

The space race is over but the US is now engaged in a very real trade war with its competitors. Can the US compete with China and India in low-cost assembly? No, at least not in everything. But manufacturing is more than that. It's about intellectual property. Engineers and scientists conceive, research, design, test, tweak and perfect technology. It takes about four years and dozens of engineers to create a Dyson machine but only a few hours put one together. When any country can make anything, the best technology will win.

Engineers and scientists only make up 4% of the US' workforce. But they help create jobs for the other 96% -- the products others sell, service, market, mend, and insure. What happens when there's nothing left to sell?

We can learn from emerging economies like Singapore. It adjusts its education systems to the needs of its economy. Over 40% of its graduates are engineers. It also has one of the best education systems in the world because it recruits and trains good teachers and shares good practices -- despite spending less than many other countries.

Similarly, Republicans and Democrats must consider long term educational goals over short term political gain. By 2020, 123 million US jobs will be in high skill/high pay occupations. But only 50 million Americans will be qualified to fill them.

Unfortunately, there's no one solution or quick fix. But I believe the agenda needs to begin at school. To see change, politicians need to make some tough choices. Does the No Child Left Behind Act's emphasis on learning by rote create better statistics than it does independent, free thinking young people? Instead of pushing kids through school with passing grades should we not be trying to inspire them by letting them get things wrong from time to time? Science and engineering should be about experimenting and observing mistakes, not ticking boxes.

That's why I was surprised to learn a design and technology class doesn't exist in the US. It's a course that goes beyond text books and encourages children to get hands on with technology and combine theory with practice. It's perfect engineering training -- using hands and brains creatively to solve problems. My foundation plans to run some design and technology workshops in the US next year.

Above all we need to produce great teachers -- who inspire study and increase achievement. The UK Government has introduced a program that encourages experienced professionals to go into teaching. I've also advised them to offer new STEM teachers financial incentives to increase numbers. Both measures would benefit the US.

The world has changed. Education must change with it. Our trade competitors are equipping young people with the skills needed in a 21st century economy. We must do the same. More engineers and scientists will boost employment, cut the deficit by creating exports and improve society through invention. If Democrats and Republicans want to safeguard the US' economic future, cooperation in the classroom is essential.