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Lack of High-Tech Workers Could Cost US Competitive Edge in Global Marketplace

A new education survey reveals that chief executives at America's largest corporations fear the U.S. could lose its competitive edge in science and technology because of a shortage of trained workers. Leaders questioned in the survey advocate greater investment in education to attract skilled workers who can meet the technological challenges of the 21st century.

Bob Allen talks a lot about "human capital." To this senior executive with CH2M Hill, a $6.2 billion engineering company with 25,000 employees, human capital means a skilled workforce. Engineers make up two-thirds of the human capital at CH2M Hill. These men and women are working on projects as diverse as managing the engineering and construction contracts for the 2012 Olympics to the widening of the Panama Canal.

"You need people to do that, and you need the best people, and in our case, it is people who have science, technology, engineering and math backgrounds," he said.

The employee-owned company -- named by Fortune Magazine as one of the most admired in America -- has been successful in attracting and keeping talented workers. But Allen shares the same concerns as executives from America's largest corporations, many of whom took part in the 13th annual "Bayer Facts of Science Education Survey."

Ninety-five percent of those executives said the U.S. is in danger of losing its global leadership position in science and technology because of a shortage of those workers.

Allen says this comes as a consequence lack of investment in science education. He says companies must begin to make "decisions today to increase the level of interest and the participation of students in engineering so that 10 to 15 years out we will have the type of workforce that will allow us to maintain [our] leadership."

Six in 10 executives said that the U.S. education system is failing. Allen says gifted graduates are entering the marketplace, but simply not enough of them. He says while his company and others are investing in school programs that help raise competency in science, it should be a national mandate that government and business join to do more if the U.S. is to remain competitive worldwide.

He says the growing economies in China and India in particular understand that reality. "They are seeing certainly as a national imperative for them to raise the level of their education and there is clearly a strong government presence ensuring that that happens."

Allen says the same thing has to take place in the United States.

Women and minorities are a source of untapped talent, according to the survey. Currently women hold 25 percent of the jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Minorities make up an even smaller share. Ninety-eight percent of those surveyed said women and minorities could significantly reduce the burden. Allen says this is especially critical as the baby boom generation retires and younger workers take their place.

"Not only is it the right thing to do, but there is certainly a benefit to the businesses that are out there," he said.

Bayer's effort to promote science literacy in schools across the country is called the "Making Science Make Sense Initiative." Bridget McCourt is the project director. She says the company's 13th annual survey underscores the importance of science education as the foundation of an informed electorate.

"It's important that everyone [has] a good base for science so that when they are asked to vote for political officials at all levels, if there is an issue that is related to these fields on the table they're well versed in what is taking place and they can make educated decisions," she said.

McCourt hopes the survey conveys the urgent need for more extensive and targeted science education programs -- and that it prompts corporate America and the U.S. government to take actions to make that happen.