The Workforce: Bill McDermott

The Workforce: Bill McDermott

We need to assemble a workforce for our high-tech economy.

Dividing by fractions, solving for x, and calculating sines and cosines -- these are just some of the requirements of a solid and substantial mathematics education.

Unfortunately, too few American students can solve these problems today. That's a shame because, as the leader of a multibillion-dollar global business, I believe that a workforce fluent in math and science helps drive productivity and profits. And it's clear to me that if our future employees are math- or science-deprived, our high-tech competitiveness as a nation will continue to be eroded.

We must never forget that virtually every industry will be high-tech in the 21st century. Firms of every size are relying on sophisticated ERP software and advanced hardware systems for supply chain management, sales force automation, data warehousing and other critical business functions. And manufacturers are increasingly dependent on sophisticated technologies such as robotics, imaging and wireless communication.

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But these changes are on a collision course with two worrisome trends. First, we have a shortage of workers with strong technology backgrounds. And second, there is a shortage of nearly 300,000 math and science teachers. Bundle these scarcities with our math mediocrity -- the U.S. Secretary of Education notes that almost half our 17-year-olds don't have the math skills to work as production associates at automobile plants -- and you have a real threat to business, the economy and national security.

In fact, the threat is so severe that both business and government must act. We must strengthen our workforce by doubling the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates by the year 2015. Last year, the Business Roundtable and 14 other business organizations released a workforce action plan, "Tapping America's Potential: The Education for Innovation Initiative," aimed at accomplishing this goal.

The plan calls for closing the technical talent gap by motivating students and adults to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This means upgrading K-12 math and science teaching and boosting funding for basic research.

Bill McDermott, president and CEO of SAP America, Inc.
Students may not like math, for example, but more than 80% of U.S. teenagers recently surveyed by the Opinion Research Corp. agreed that this subject is essential to achieving their career goals. These young adults in the making are also happily conversant in technology -- their iPods, video games and chronic downloading represent a lifestyle more than a hobby -- so we must find compelling ways to harness this passion in the classroom.

We must also reform visa and immigration policies to continue attracting top international students and foreign-born professionals. And we must reach out to women and minorities, who are underrepresented in technical fields.

We can accomplish almost anything in this country. Nearly 40 years ago, we put a man on the moon. And I believe we will now build the workforce our high-tech economy needs.

Bill McDermott is the president and CEO of SAP America, Inc. and a corporate officer of SAP AG. He is a member of the Education & the Workforce Task Force of Business Roundtable, a Washington, D.C.-based association of CEOs.

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