Talent Shout

This election year keeps bringing uncertain and troublesome economic news. If you have a job, you cling to it for dear life; if you need a job, you learn the virtues of patience and persistence. As Charles Dickens wrote at the opening of A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...."

While stock markets seem like a cardiac patient with severe arrhythmia, the official monthly unemployment figures show a reasonably positive picture: the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on March 4, 2016, that unemployment was a healthy 4.9 percent.

Market skeptics, nonetheless, describe a "dead cat bounce" when the markets rise, while optimists urge investors to "buy the dips" before a future rebound. The rules are still "buy low, sell high." Timing matters.

But for people living off their savings, time has not been their friend. More than 84 months of zero-interest-rate policy has meant virtually no returns on their retirement savings. Middle class savers become worried by talk about "negative interest rates" -- a reality today in nearly a quarter of the global economy. Central banks in Denmark, Sweden, the European Union, and Japan charge such rates, and on March 7, 2016, The Financial Times lead story had this headline: "Economists fire warning shot on risks of negative interest rates."

This new, topsy-turvy economic world troubles many Americans. Negative interest rates penalize Benjamin Franklin's thrifty savers and reward profligate spenders. Many Americans also cannot fathom how we reached $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, how we can have nearly full employment alongside the lowest labor-market participation rate since 1978, and how consumers lose when oil prices dip below $30 a barrel.

Amidst this turmoil and uncertainty, there is at least one certainty: to remain a globally competitive and vibrant democracy, we must make substantial human capital investments in our young people and their education. There is no possibility of a "time out". Our economy will only be as strong as our people, and we need to act now to ensure that our 21st Century workforce has the necessary skills and experience to be productive, competitive, innovative, and successful.

Sound human capital investments are the best "infrastructure" spending we can make to ensure a better future. But there's a disconnect: at the same time that we tell our young people they need more postsecondary education to remain globally competitive, we also burden them with unsustainable debt levels that too often amount to a home mortgage -- with little guarantee of much, if any, future equity. We should not be surprised that some young Americans are questioning the value of postsecondary education. They perform rational cost-benefit analyses before they pursue what could be a costly degree or lengthy course of study in an uncertain labor market.

To counter this pessimism and skepticism about the value of postsecondary education, Jamie Merisotis, the president and CEO of the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, has written an concise, thoughtful, persuasive, and -- importantly -- optimistic book about the nation's future workforce requirements. America Needs Talent: Attracting, Educating & Deploying the 21st Century Workforce is a book our 2016 political candidates -- local, state, and national -- should read carefully.

Lumina Foundation is the nation's largest private foundation that focuses solely on postsecondary education issues. It has adopted an important strategic goal: by 2025, 60 percent of Americans will have obtained high-quality degrees, certificates, or other credentials. (Full disclosure: I served as a Lumina Foundation Fellow from 2013-2015.) Lumina's 2025 "completion" goal is critical, because it reinforces an important national priority: our young people need more postsecondary education, not less.

Merisotis presents a "battle plan" for creating the type of "talented society" that will ensure a bright, prosperous future for all Americans. This future envisions not just solid jobs at good, competitive wages but also citizens who are actively engaged in the civic life of their communities, their states, and their nation.

Far too much of the 2016 presidential campaign thus far has framed America's future as a set of negative options: building walls to keep people out, sending people back home, abandoning cooperative trading agreements, and withdrawing from the world. By contrast, Merisotis proposes a positive approach that includes five important components:

  • rethink American higher education to focus on the real customers - students - to promote "learning outcomes that will impact economic and social progress"
  • unleash private-sector innovation and risk-taking to address our "talent deficit"
  • establish a new Department of Talent by merging existing bureaucracies that now focus (inefficiently and ineffectively) on workforce, education, and recruitment policies
  • develop a new immigration model that promotes immigration "as a talent enhancement strategy for the nation"
  • recognize metropolitan areas "as hubs of talent where innovation and commerce thrive and increase the nation's human potential."

The Merisotis battle plan is inclusive, expansive, and positive. Its optimism is grounded in old-fashioned American pragmatism and determination. Other nations around the world - France, for example - talk about making labor and education reforms, but the necessary structural changes don't seem to happen. The result: yet another generation of young people with missed opportunities, little work experience, and lowered expectations. This is not the American way.

Achieving the Merisotis reforms will require significant changes in the ways that government and the private sector currently work. Most importantly, educational institutions will also have to reform their current operations to be more cost-effective, more accountable for measurable educational results (outcomes versus inputs, as Merisotis puts it), and better governed. Merisotis writes that "innovation thrives most where education and employment are tightly intertwined."

America Needs Talent was written by a thoughtful talent scout who shows us the way forward. Now it's up to all of us to embrace his recommendations and secure the "talent dividend" that he believes lies in our future.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H. W. Bush White House. He was president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012 and is now president of Partners 4 Affordable Excellence @ EDU.