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December 2007
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New Workforce Demands Call for New Approaches to Worker Preparation

The need for a better and differently prepared U.S. workforce is indisputable. Today's global economy has created a high demand for intellectually strong workers, capable of solving complex problems and developing innovative services and products. From the 1983 call by the National Commission on Excellence in Education to increase graduation requirements 1 to the ambitious new vision of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, 2 numerous reports have documented the significant changes in the world economy wrought by globalization and automation and the growing demand on Americans to master advanced skills, from mathematics to problem solving, and to work more creatively.

Some have started referring to the early 21st century as the conceptual era in which prosperity and well-being are defined less by traditional measures, such as the ability to perform well in low-skill manufacturing roles, and more by the intellectual capacity and ingenuity required to compete in a rapidly expanding global marketplace. 3 Former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan touched on changing work demands when he observed in a 2005 speech, "Work is becoming less physically strenuous and more demanding intellectually, continuing a century-long trend toward a more conceptual and a less physical economic output." 4 The National Association of Manufacturers made the point more directly in its annual Labor day report for 2005, The Looming Workforce Crisis: Preparing American Workers for 21st Century Competition, which refers to a "widening skills gap" in the context of a U.S. department of Labor projection that 85 percent of future jobs will require, minimally, a two- or four-year college degree. 5

In its compelling 2006 report, Tough Choices or Tough Times, the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce documents a competitive and decentralized global economy in which even highly skilled workers are in danger of losing their jobs to overseas competitors who can work from afar for a much lower wage, as when an Indian engineer accustomed to earning $7,500 a year vies for work against an American engineer earning $45,000 a year.

This is a world, the commission argues, "in which comfort with ideas and abstractions is the passport to a good job, in which creativity and innovation are the key to the good life, in which high levels of education—a very different kind of education than most of us have had— are going to be the only security there is." 6

Also of growing importance in this changing world is fluency in a foreign language. The National Security Language Initiative, launched in January 2006, was conceived to strengthen U.S. competitiveness and national security by increasing the number of Americans learning foreign languages, especially those deemed to be of strategic importance. Among the languages considered by the U.S. Department of State to be most critical are Arabic, Russian, Hindi, Farsi, Korean, and Chinese, 7 none of which have been widely available in U.S. K–12 schools. In its 2006 report, Answering the Challenge of a Changing World: Strengthening Education for the 21st Century, the U.S. Department of Education captures the concern that other developed countries whose students learn multiple languages will gain an edge over a primarily monolingual U.S. It notes, for example, that while more than 200 million Chinese students study English, in comparison, only about 24,000 American elementary and secondary school students study Chinese. 8

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Last Modified: 10/05/2009