RALEIGH — North Carolina is trying to prepare for the future economy by putting recommendations from Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton's JOBS (Joining Our Businesses and Schools) Commission into practice. Two bills that Gov. Bev Perdue recently signed into law come directly from the commission's report.
One of them seeks to increase the number of college students in science, technology, engineering and math (so-called STEM subjects); the other starts the creation of an "Agriscience and Biotechnology Regional School."
Unfortunately, the JOBS Commission recommendations - and therefore the new laws - are based on false assumptions and unrealistic projections.
Session Law 2010-41 sets "as a priority an increase in the number of students" obtaining college degrees in STEM subjects "to reduce the gap between needed credentialed workers and available jobs in those fields by 2015."
But this shortage of STEM graduates is a myth, according to Beryl Lieff Benderly, who writes the "Science Careers" column for Science Magazine. She quotes from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer and science training authority, who "cites the profound irony of crying shortage - as have many business leaders, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates - while scores of thousands of young Ph.D.s labor in the nation's university labs as low-paid, temporary workers, ostensibly training for permanent faculty positions that don't exist."
Vivek Wadhwa, who founded two software companies and is now the director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University, wrote in 2006 that, while "university deans, business executives and political leaders" were calling for the country to double its production of engineers, "if you analyze the data, there doesn't seem to be any indication of a general shortage of engineers."
But the JOBS Commission never sought the advice of experts such as Wadhwa and Benderly. Instead, the underlying sources for the commission's recommendations are one-sided. Kimberly Roberts, Dalton's deputy chief of staff, told me in an e-mail that two of the "primary points of information" for the legislation were a presentation by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce titled "Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018."
Both sources simply assume that we need more STEM workers, without bothering to ask whether the assumption is correct. And both rely on outdated information that renders their predictions meaningless.
For instance, the Georgetown study treats the federal administration's projection of 3.5 million jobs created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as a fact. But the projected jobs from the "stimulus package" never materialized, and, according to the Department of Labor, total employment is now far less than the administration and the authors of the Georgetown study anticipated.
The proposal to create an Agriscience and Biotechnology Regional School - by Session Law 2010-183 - reflects the same faulty reasoning that underlies the first law. Also, the idea that starting high school students in a specialized field will produce more experts in that field must be questioned. Age 14 is very young to begin such specialization, with students likely to change their intended careers several times before reaching adulthood.
To produce future scientists, it is sufficient to make sure that talented high school students gain a solid foundation in the general principles of science. Only a government commission can think to lock talented 14-year-olds into narrow fields of study such as biotechnology, preparing them for careers that may never exist.
Isn't it time our education system went back to concentrating on what it can do well - educating - and quit trying to do something it cannot do well - create economic prosperity?
This sort of centralized planning, in which government decides where the future demand will be and tries to change the supply to meet that demand, has failed wherever it has been tried. The JOBS process appears to be a stacked deck that will one day most likely turn to "SOBS."
Jay Schalin is senior writer at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.