TWIF (Part 2): America's Career Choice Gap
There are few examples that more thoroughly sum up the rest of the world’s ability to compete head-to-head with the America than the mediocre performance of the U.S. Olympic basketball team in 2004. The U.S. line up—composed completely of NBA stars and all-stars—returned home with the bronze medal after losing to Puerto Rico, Lithuania, and Argentina. Going into 2004 the United States basketball team had lost only one game in the history of modern Olympics. Remember when America sent only NCAA stars to the Olympics? And they dominated the competition! Then once they were challenged we sent our NBA stars; who once again, dominated the competition. Now our NBA stars are being successfully challenged and—though it’s hard to accept—beaten.
“Close games for the Americans were rare in previous Olympics,
but now it appears to be something the Americans should get used to.”
From an August 17, 2004, AP article from the Athens Olympics titled “U.S. Men’s Basketball Team Narrowly Beats Greece”
Believe it or not our NBA All-Stars were beaten by technology. Coaches in other countries can download our coaching methods off the web, watch our games on TV, and study ESPN’s highlight reel. In other words, they studied us so that they could beat us. And guess what? It worked.
Even so, when considering the leveled playing field created by technology Olympic basketball is important only as a metaphor. It symbolizes something much bigger and much more serious: America has failed to sufficiently invest in our future by neglecting to prepare our young people for the race ahead.
The crisis is happening on many different fronts, yet this post focuses on what I call the Career Choice Gap. American young people nowadays would rather be movie actors than scientists, pop stars rather than engineers. The generation of scientists and engineers who were motivated by the threat of Sputnik in 1957 and by the inspiration of John F. Kennedy are reaching the age of retirement and are not being adequately replaced.
An analysis of NASA records conducted by the newspaper Florida Today (March 7, 2004), showed that nearly 40 percent of the 18,146 people working for NASA are age fifty or older and 22% are fifty-five or older. Most astonishingly NASA employees over sixty outnumber employees under thirty by a ratio of nearly three to one! Only four percent of NASA workers are under thirty years old.
The National Science Board (NSB) reports that the number of American eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds who received science degrees has fallen to seventeenth in the world, even though we ranked third 30 years ago. Furthermore, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) showed that American twelfth graders finished 15th out of sixteen countries in advanced mathematics and dead last out of sixteen countries in advanced science.
Don’t think for a moment that the up-and-coming world is sitting still. Of the 2.8 million bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering granted worldwide in 2003, 1.2 million were earned by Asian students in Asian universities. Only 400,000 were granted in the United States. Shirley Ann Jackson, the 2004 president of the American Association for Advancement of Science explains, “the proportional emphasis on science and engineering is greater in other nations.”
Science and engineering degrees now represent 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned in China but only 31 percent in the United States. When you factor out science degrees the figures are even further removed; 46 percent of Chinese students graduate with engineering degrees vs. 5 percent of American students.
According to Friedman “these shortages could not be happening at a worse time—just when the world is going flat.” According to the NSB “the number of jobs requiring science and engineering skills in the U.S. labor force is growing almost 5 percent per year.” In comparison the labor force as a whole is growing just over 1 percent annually.
The world is speeding up and America—specifically the next generation—is falling behind. Blame could be placed on our parents but accomplishes nothing. Chinese young people are motivated and ambitious. I cannot stress enough that young Chinese and Indians are racing us to the top. They don’t want to work for us. Heck, they don’t even want to be like us. They want to dominate us. They are not content where they are and they're studying us carefully in order to beat us. And guess what? It’s working.
A Chinese-American who works for Microsoft accompanied Bill Gates on his visits to China. He said that Gates is recognized everywhere he goes in China. Young people hang from the rafters and scalp tickets just to hear him speak. Same with Jerry Lang, the founder of Yahoo!
Contrast this obsession with the American youth culture’s preoccupation with Hollywood stars, hip-hop and pop artists, and reality TV shows such as American Idol. Our preoccupation with the “New American Dream”—namely getting rich by entertaining (sports star, movie star, pop star, etc.) has caused us to ignore traditional, foundational, and critical professions. Mr. Friedman, whose book supplied the quotations and statistics I’ve cited closes the issue:
In China today, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. In America today, Britney Spears is Britney Spears—and that's our problem.
Continue Series with Part Three: World Champions of Triviality