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High-Tech Education Is A Crucial Difference

(This essay was published in Crain's Detroit Business on 5/13/2013) They say admitting you have a problem is the first step. My problem isn't finding work, it's finding qualified workers.

While the overall unemployment rate remains high, this average masks the real problem. It's called the skills gap: While many are unemployable because their old jobs are gone forever, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 3 million open jobs, mainly in high-paying, high-tech STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) positions.

In my own profession -- statistical analysis for business -- the unemployment rate is negative, with more job openings than qualified people and employers leaving positions unfilled. Even as the city of Detroit is drowning in debt around us, my co-workers are drowning in work.

What are the qualifications for these new jobs? It starts with mathematics, but more is needed. A computer language is a big plus, but the specific language is less important than being able to give clear directions on how something is to be done. Classes that make a person think, analyze and communicate -- like science labs, writing and music -- are essential. Almost every mathematician I know is also a skilled musician. Amazingly, the single most important skill is also the rarest: statistics. It can make a person stand out from the crowd. Statistics provides the ability to understand technical studies, marketing analysis, demographics, risk, financial data, regulatory compliance and a hundred other things that make candidates more valuable to almost any employer.

It's never too late to start. Because high-tech jobs often have a shelf life of only about five years, a constant need to learn new skills and reinvent one's career is now a fact of life. Job retraining programs need to provide the skills employers need most. Critical thinking, computers and statistics are recession-proof skills that increase in demand every year -- even as employers were unable to find enough STEM workers in the United States, a lottery for H-1B visas to import more was needed every year, even in the depth of the Great Recession.

The consequences of the skills gap hit Southeast Michigan harder than anywhere else. Although I'm not the only person born into poverty in Detroit who escaped by way of a high-tech education, as a hiring manager today I wish there were many more. The terrible human toll of inadequate education surrounds us, threatening to consume our beloved city like a cancer. Spending more time with math in school is more than a way up, it can be a way out, breaking the cycle of poverty and its multitude of attendant ills. In our increasingly knowledge-driven economy, the spiraling cost of ignorance has become the price of freedom itself.

David J Corliss, PhD is a statistical astrophysicist working with emerging analytic technology in the automotive industry. He is the founder and Director of Peace-Work.

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