An education reality check

The world is changing at a phenomenal pace, and we are failing to adequately respond

My article, “Learning to keep U.S. jobs,” in the May 12-25, 2017 issue of the NH Business Review drew a fair amount of feedback.

Based on a CEO’s comment that he was forced to have his software developed in India, not just for the cost savings, but also because the programmers are much better, I explained how our schools, for the most part, are simply not adequately preparing students with the skills they need to compete in the global jobs market.

Almost all the feedback, even from teachers and school principals, agreed with me, but there was one teacher who blew me away. The conversation went like this.

“Corporate greed! That’s what it is, corporate greed.”

“Really? You think that’s the problem?”

“Absolutely. These companies are trying to make too much money.”

“Are you sure it’s corporate greed and not consumer greed?”

“What do you mean?”

“When you go shopping, don’t you want the very best product you can find at the very best price?”

“Of course — I’d be crazy not to.”

“Well, the only way companies can compete effectively to get customers like you and the rest of us is to control their costs, and labor is a pretty big cost in the production of many products. If they don’t go offshore, they may not be able to compete with the companies that do.”

“What we need is a world-wide minimum wage and universal environmental standards.”

“Are you kidding? We can’t even prevent wars and get people to stop killing each other. Do you really think we could get them to agree to this?”

“That’s the issue.”

“In other words, you don’t see any reason for changes in education? Don’t you feel a responsibility to educate children to be able to succeed in the world that exists, the one they’ll have to find a job in? Doesn’t that make more sense than trying to provide a mediocre education and hoping other countries will lower their standards to match ours?”

There was no response, and he hasn’t been very friendly since.

I have no idea how widespread this kind of thinking is. I admit I was astounded to hear it verbalized that way. Perhaps I’m a bit naive, but how else could you justify graduating kids that can’t make change from a dollar, that can’t speak and write the only language they know with proper grammar? And it’s painfully obvious the education community is not about to fix itself.

Many companies have been working with local high schools and colleges to help them educate kids with the skills required to become employable in their operations. That’s a great start, and it’s been going on for years in some places, but it can’t adequately address the international competitive reality.

We aren’t only losing jobs offshore; we lose many to automation. In highly automated environments, the jobs that exist tend to be far more sophisticated than the jobs they replaced. Assembling components of a product by hand requires far less education than being able to program a robot or series of robots to do it for you.

It’s not just math, science and language skills that are lacking. Many kids have little or no understanding of U.S. and world history. Nor do they understand the industrial revolution and economic history. How can you effectively decide what you want to be when you grow up without some knowledge of where we’ve come from and where we’re going? The career you pick could be quickly disappearing.

The world is changing at a phenomenal pace, and our education system, by and large, is failing to adequately respond. Hoping other countries will eventually compete on our terms merely delays efforts to address the issues.

But what I found to be most disturbing is that the education folks who agreed with me don’t see a way to fix the problem. This is not the kind of thinking that built our great country, our great companies or what was once the greatest education system in the world.

Somehow, we have to go back to that other kind of thinking to move forward.

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or