Consumer Technology Association chief: Let's make manufacturing great again

If there’s one common thread running through sizable portions of the American Left and Right these days, it’s anti-globalization. The opposition takes many forms, from anti-immigration to anti-free-trade agreements, but at its core is the sense that globalization has hurt the American middle class.

Neither side has much patience for economists’ view that globalization and trade have boosted U.S. exports, created jobs and made an incredible range of miraculous products such as smartphones affordable to almost every American.

A global economy is actually in the interest of the U.S. more than any other country, as our businesses are among the most innovative and efficient in the world.

But after several years of being told by our national leaders that the system is “rigged” and Americans are not responsible for their own success or failure, the populism of Donald Trump or Sen. Bernie Sanders becomes a better solution than self-reliance and responsibility. In recent weeks, Hillary Clinton has made it clear that trade is important, but that we “make trade work for us, not against us,” adding that she continues to oppose trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Of course, building Trump’s wall on the Mexican border or investing $10 billion in Clinton’s plan to “Make it in America” won’t erase decades of global economic progress. Rather, efforts to push back or stall globalization will do more harm than good to the American middle class in the long run.

Those traditional manufacturing jobs that formed the backbone of the American economy in the latter half of the 20th century are gone. And guess what? They’re not coming back.

Instead, we want the American workforce to move on to more advanced, highly technical manufacturing jobs that workers in emerging economies are less likely to perform.

Nearly every day, I hear from members of the Consumer Technology Association — the companies powering the global economy into the future — about the dearth of American workers with the necessary education, skills and experience to perform these jobs.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that U.S. companies will require more than 9 million workers performing jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by 2022, an increase of about 1 million jobs from 2012 levels. But BLS also projects significant unfilled job openings in STEM occupations, such as software developers and computer systems analysts.

Meanwhile, 2 million new workers are entering the labor force each year. But do they have the requisite skills to fill those openings?

In January, the New York Federal Reserve looked at employment data for recent college graduates between 2009 and 2013 and found that 45 percent were working in “non-college” jobs. In other words, almost half of all recent college graduates are underemployed.

Now tack on an average of $35,000 in student-loan debt that follows each senior after graduation, and suddenly we have a crisis that goes beyond the high cost of college. The answer to America’s manufacturing crisis is found in America’s higher education crisis.

Put another way, if more workers with the type of in-demand skills required by the tech sector emerge from the U.S. education system, then more graduates will have meaningful employment to help pay down their student loans. Yet, as we’ve seen, there’s an imbalance in what America’s higher education system is producing and what America’s employers need.

How to fix that? For starters, we need to rid ourselves of the idea that the only way to obtain a decent job in the U.S. is with a bachelor’s degree from a four-year institution. This idea is a remnant of the 20th century, when the economy and the skills needed to perform well in it were far less complex than they are today.

Some tech leaders such as Peter Thiel have understood that not everyone needs a four-year college degree. That is why he sponsors the “Thiel Fellowship,” allowing students to drop out of school to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams.

We need to expand this idea to the higher education system as a whole. It’s time we invest in cheaper, more focused options, such as community and online colleges, as well as trade schools, as viable options for any student, not just the poor and working class. The next great computer scientist or engineer may build the next Google despite never having read “Hamlet” — at least not at $30,000 or more per year.

Reform like this requires sponsorship not only from employers, who need to make it known that they value skills over expensive degrees, but also from our nation’s leaders.

Clinton, whose technology and innovation policies are admirable, needs to dispense with the talk about trying to make college “debt-free” and focus on far less expensive, but no less rigorous alternatives to four-year institutions. Her proposal to engage the private sector and nonprofits to train future computer science teachers is a step in the right direction. And lately she has been touting the benefits of vocational training and apprenticeship programs on the campaign trail.

Instead, she and Trump should echo Germany’s approach to vocational education, where roughly 60 percent of high school graduates pursue vocational training instead of traditional college. That country’s Federal Institute for Vocational Training and Education provides students with both classroom instruction and on-the-job training, which has earned Germany one of the highest youth-employment rates in the European Union.

The U.S. doesn’t need a separate agency, because we already have the institutions — the vast network of community, online and trade schools — not to mention the U.S. Department of Education. The agency could redirect its resources toward a set of policies similar to Germany’s commitment to vocational training.

What the U.S. needs is a change in attitude. We need to move on from the 20th-century idea that there was only one path to a good job. Let’s instead embrace the new economy’s demand for skills, skills and more skills.

If we accomplish this, we will once again solidify America’s status as a manufacturing hub — only this time, with a focus on the high-tech innovation and sustainable economic strength and global competitiveness that will make us the envy of the world.