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COLUMN: Indiana’s high-school grads and economic opportunity

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By BILL STANCZYKIEWICZ
Indiana Youth Institute

High school graduation ceremonies this month are celebrating the Class of 2012, and Hoosier graduates can learn an important lesson from the past before they take their next step forward.

An intriguing correlation exists between today’s economic trends and the economic developments of 100 years ago.

According to Northwestern University’s Julio Ottino and technology CEO Mark Millsand, America’s economy in 1912 featured five game-changers: increased access to electricity, growing use of the telephone, the dawn of the automobile age and the inventions of stainless steel and the radio.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Ottino and Millsand argue that these breakthroughs created a 700-percent increase in American wealth (after inflation) during the subsequent century.

In 2012, the analysts cite three developments with potential to achieve the same staggering results: big data, wireless communication and advanced manufacturing. In terms of big data, many Americans have more processing power and data storage in their pocket – thanks to smartphones – than was possible for a 1970s computer filling an entire room.

Similarly, wireless communication connects more than a billion people around the planet, and the number grows daily.

During the American Revolution, the famous letters between John and Abigail Adams needed seven weeks to cross the Atlantic. During today’s technology revolution, a trans-Atlantic e-mail or text could arrive in less than seven minutes.

And then there is advanced manufacturing, which is a growing strength in Indiana. Ottino and Millsand describe the advent of direct-digital manufacturing, with parts and products manufactured by a “printing” process utilizing lasers along with powdered metals and plastics – a process akin to desktop publishing.

Digital manufacturing is the most fundamental shift in the industry since the days of Henry Ford, and the analysts write, “The era of near-perfect computational design and production will unleash as big a change in how we make things as the agricultural revolution did in how we grow things.”

Paul Perkins agrees. He serves as president of Amatrol, a Jeffersonville-based company that develops training tools and learning systems for technical education programs. He also chairs Indiana’s State Workforce Innovation Council.

Perkins confirms that digital manufacturing not only is the future, but that the future is now, and jobs are available after just six months of training or with a two-year associate’s degree.

“While digital manufacturing currently is used mainly for models and prototypes, it is not out of the question to expect that this process eventually will be used for mass production,” Perkins said. “By working in a virtual environment, manufacturers can make a perfect part with the very first part.”

The United States has a huge advantage for seizing these emerging opportunities: our nation’s youth. Ottino and Millsand explain that by the year 2020, the American population will be younger than the populations of China and Europe. While other global competitors remain, America’s relative youth can become a competitive advantage, but only if today’s high-school graduates and the students who follow are properly prepared for an economic era that the analysts write “will be defined by high talent not cheap labor.”

For example, of the 50 fastest-growing jobs in America, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that 64 percent require some level of education after high school. In fact, there will be more available jobs than qualified applicants. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the gap will reach 1.5 million unfilled jobs requiring postsecondary education by 2020 – the year when today’s sixth- through eighth-graders will enter the labor market after (hopefully) earning a two- or four-year postsecondary degree.

But we need not wait until the year 2020. The labor market already rewards education. Federal statistics reveal that since January of 2010, the American economy has created about two million new jobs for workers with a postsecondary education.

Workforce participation among high-school graduates is just 50 percent, compared with 65 percent for associate degree holders and 75 percent for people with at least a bachelor’s degree.

The Class of 2012 discarded their radios for digital music. A similar modernization persists in the job market. By continuing their education, today’s graduates can seize the day and replace the Great Recession with the next Great Opportunity.

Stanczykiewicz is president and chief executive officer of the Indiana Youth Institute. He can be reached at iyi@iyi.org.