Bring Back the Space Race

After the Soviets launched Sputnik, the U.S. created NASA and funneled millions of resources into technological and scientific research to shore up U.S. competitiveness. In China today, the government has had the foresight the U.S. once did and has put in place a talent program to support its students in the pursuit of higher education and innovation. Returning to the investment in science education of the Sputnik days and fostering technical talent like the Chinese may at once help reduce U.S. employment and make the country more competitive technologically.

As Reuters recently reported, the U.S. has an insufficient supply of qualified skilled workers to fill job vacancies that require technical knowledge—especially in manufacturing, where technicians are in high demand. A manpower survey also reported that 52 percent of U.S. companies had trouble filling essential positions; that study supports statistics from the U.S. Labor Department showing that more three million tech jobs remain unfilled for months. These hard-to-fill positions tend to be in Internet technology, machine operation, and engineering fields, though nursing and accounting also top the list.

At the same time that technical positions go unfilled, 1.6 million American students received bachelor’s degrees in 2010, with fewer than 90,000 of them in engineering. Bachelor degrees in computer and electrical engineering numbered less than 15,000, while the number of visual-arts degrees was more than 80,000. In response to this shortfall, businesses are pushing Congress to make visas more available to higher-skilled foreigners.

But instead of importing more talent, why not create more homegrown talent? Foreigners may return to their home country after receiving a technical education, but U.S. citizens have a greater chance of remaining in the country for the long haul. So to encourage more homegrown technical talent, we need to provide more incentives for students to study in the technical fields. Taking a page from China’s government policies, which have resulted in China graduating more than eight times the number of engineers than the U.S., the federal government ought to forgive crippling student loans if students graduate with a math or science degree.

Rather than looking at these majors as a private choice, higher education in math and science should be seen as a common good. Of course, a liberal arts education is also valuable. But today, the U.S. doesn’t have a shortage of these majors, and thus the urgency is to rebalance the portfolio of talent in our labor pool to meet the immediate technical needs of our nation in order to revitalize our economy.

In addition to helping students compete in the economy, having more math and science majors is critical to national security. The U.S. needs citizens who can develop and run future space programs as well as understand cyber warfare. This is especially true in a world that is growing increasingly complex and where countries like China and Russia are catching up. Again, having a populace educated in engineering and math would be in the interest of the broader society.

More people with a technical background could also lead to a much greener economy. The next Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak—types who will tinker in a garage and come up with something revolutionary—need to have a background in math and science in order to make that possible. While Steve Jobs didn’t graduate from college, he couldn’t have launched Apple without the help of Wozniak—a computer-science major and the technical brains behind the company. Today, computer technology has become a more mature industry, so it is more difficult to come up with breakthrough innovations. Green technology, on the other hand, is still an open field; no single technology or company dominates the industry. If we educated more people who have the knowledge and skills to come up with solutions—beyond the usual suspects of solar, wind, and other alternative energies that people typically think about—then we could tackle at least a portion of the jobs problem and environmental protections as well.

Deficit hawks and others concerned about runaway federal spending will probably criticize a measure to forgive student debt as a waste of money. But the best measure of how well money is spent is the expected future dividends that such an investment will yield. The average college tuition for a private four-year college is now roughly $25,000 a year. If the government makes the $100,000 investment per science graduate, what is the likely return on that investment? The average salary today is between $50,000 and $70,000 for engineers. Assuming that the average person will have a 20-year career, the lifetime income will be anywhere between $1 million and $1.4 million, assuming no increases in pay. But the value these people will generate will actually be much higher since the multiplier effect of their spending will produce even more jobs in the economy, and thus more government revenue. One way to look at this would be whether a $100,000 tax cut to someone in the highest tax bracket would do more for the economy than the $100,000 student-loan forgiveness. In the former case, there is no guarantee that a job would be created; while in the latter case, a technical job will most certainly be filled.

If we decide to go down this path, it will not be the first time that this kind of investment in future generations has been made. Let’s seize the moment while we still can.

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