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Science, Jobs, and Economic Growth (adapted from BSCS, 2008)

Our nation depends on the quality of our scientists and engineers to be competitive in the global economy. The National Academy of Sciences report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm External Web Site Policy (2005), concluded that:

  • The scientific and technical building blocks critical to our economic leadership are eroding while in many other nations, they are strengthening
  • The United States is in danger of losing its economic leadership position because of a potential inability to compete in the global marketplace
  • Other nations have the competitive advantage of a low wage structure. To compete the United States must optimize knowledge-based resources, particularly in science and technology.
The authoring committee made four primary recommendations. First among these was that the United States increase its talent pool by vastly improving K-12 science and mathematics education.

Most scientists would concur that science is essential if students are to understand the world and, even, be good citizens. For many parents, however, a more compelling argument for high-quality science education is that their children need it in order to prosper in a 21st-century workforce. This does not mean that all students need to prepare for a career in science or engineering, but rather that the skills mastered through high-quality science education are among those greatly valued by employers.

In the 1970s, students could attain a middle-class lifestyle with only a high school diploma. Over the past 30 years, however, the skills needed to obtain a job and make a middle-class salary have changed dramatically. During this time, the advent of advanced technology, especially in manufacturing industries that had formerly paid high wages, along with the increasing international trade competition for low-skill jobs have made things much more difficult for students with only a high school diploma.

Even people with a college degree, or more, may not be immune from the forces of globalization. To learn more about the impact of globalization on education, see Rising Above the Gathering Storm External Web Site Policy.

These difficulties are compounded by the fact that the skill set taught in schools has remained the same over this time period. The education that was effective in the 1970s has stayed the same while the workplace has changed dramatically. In the early years of the 21st century, there is a substantial gap between the skills of graduating high school seniors and the skills valued by employers.

In Teaching the New Basic Skills, Richard Murnane and Frank Levy (1996) describe a new set of skills important to employers and work practices in firms paying middle-class wages. The New Basic Skills are those abilities needed to obtain at least a middle-class position. They include:

Hard skills
The ability to read at the 9th-grade level or better
The ability to do math at the 9th-grade level or better
The ability to solve semi-structured problems where hypotheses must be formed and tested
Soft skills
The ability to work in groups with people of various backgrounds
The ability to communicate effectively, both orally and in writing, at the 9th-grade level or better
Other skills
The ability to use personal computers to carry out simple tasks like word processing

In today’s advanced technological world, many employers are willing to teach knowledge specific to their industry, as long as potential employees are proficient at the New Basic Skills. In addition, these skills are needed by all students, regardless of whether they attend college or enter the workforce directly after high school. Murnane and Levy describe why specific jobs, such as working on an auto assembly line or for an insurance company, require skills that were not needed 30 years ago and are not possessed by most applicants today.

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