Bring Back the Space Race

To remain competitive, the U.S. needs to rebalance its portfolio of talent.

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.