Aspen panel warns U.S. workers less prepared |

Aspen panel warns U.S. workers less prepared

ASPEN, Colorado ” The U.S. is rapidly falling behind countries like China and India in preparing workers and needs to make changes quickly to remain competitive in the global economy, warned members of a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Wednesday.

The education system is falling behind other key countries and not enough money and effort is plowed into retraining workers, the panel members seemed to agree.

“What’s missing to me in the debate is a sense of urgency,” said journalist Terence Smith, moderator for a session called “Preparing Our Nation’s Work Force.”

The panel included two cabinet members of the Bush administration, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

The six speakers presented a mostly dire snapshot of the U.S. work force, particularly when compared to Asia. Smith said the Chinese consider learning English a vital step for success. By 2025, it has been projected that there will be more English speakers in China than in all English-speaking countries combined, Smith said.

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Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and former president of the University of Pennsylvania, said 197 science and technology parks are being developed in China next to universities.

While China invests in the future, the U.S. is struggling with an economic slump and responding poorly, said industrialist Sidney Harman. He noted that job losses are expected to continue into 2009. Too many U.S. businesses respond to crisis by laying off workers rather than retraining them and preparing for the next economic upturn, he said.

Thomas Wilson, chairman, president and CEO of Allstate Corp. and Allstate Insurance Co., said it will require spending $250 billion over five years to properly educate and train the U.S. work force to compete in the modern economy. He outlined several recommendations, focusing on more funds for education at all levels and retraining dollars for workers.

Harman said it could take 20 to 30 years to prepare U.S. workers to effectively compete on a global scale.

The Bush administration cabinet members didn’t necessarily share all the dire forecasts. Gutierrez said the U.S. unemployment rate was 5.5 percent in May, still lower than the average over the last three decades. Unemployment was barely above 2 percent for workers with a degree from a college or university. It was greater than 8 percent for workers who didn’t graduate from high school. That stresses the need for education, he said.

Spellings said only one-half of minority students graduate from high school on time. If the trend continues and half of those students don’t graduate, “we’re in a world of hurt,” she said.

Spellings said a controversial education program of the Bush administration will provide data that can be used to measure educational performance in the nation’s public schools. “Love it or hate No Child Left Behind, it put the elephant on the dining room table,” she said.

She said teachers and their unions must be more flexible on how education is conducted. It cannot be limited to a fixed number of hours for certain months of the year.

“The words 24/7 have almost no relevance in today’s job training and education,” she said.

She quoted a Texas saying to represent why education and training are so important to progress: “If all you ever do is all you’ve ever done, then all you’ll ever get is what you’ve ever got.”

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