STEM education – science, technology, engineering and math – in the United States is not a popular choice these days, and the result is a :skills gap” that threatens the future of our country, say many business leaders. Among them are Jim Goodnight, the co-founder and chief executive officer at SAS, and Jim Whitehurst, CEO at Raleigh-based Red Hat. On Thursday, they are stepping up their campaign for more STEM students.

SAS will host a forum  to discuss the threat posed to the U.S. by a lack of students focused on technology skills. Leading the program will be Gary Beach, publisher emeritus of CIO Magazine and author of the new book “The U.S. Technology Skills Gap.” Is the threat real? Yes, says Beach, who talks with WRALTechWire about how this “skills gap” is the equivalent to a permanent recession. (The event will be webcast from 3-4:30 p.m.)

The first of a two-part interview follows. (Part Two can be read online as well.)

  • In your view is the “skills gap” in science and math truly threatening our future? Please explain.

Absolutely. On three fronts.

McKinsey and Company reviewed two decades of math and science scores in international tests and concluded the poor performance of Americans on these tests is akin to a “permanent national recession” dragging down the U.S. economy. Moreover, McKinsey claims that if the U.S. public education system just matched the performance of Finland’s our annual GDP would be 16% larger each year. That’s an economy that’s $2.4 trillion dollars larger a year!

The second reason is the future employability of American citizens. Nearly 25 years ago the New Commission on the American Workforce issued a report entitled “America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages?” Some, including myself, believe America still hasn’t made that choice.

The third reason is the strength of our country’s national security. Through out human history war and conflicts have been waged on four planes …. land, sea, air and space. We are now entering an era where cyberspace conflicts have the potential to arise. Winners in cyberspace conflicts will be nation’s with the smartest STEM citizens.

  • What are the key steps you see as needing to be taken to address this gaps?

First, we need to make it a national priority to hire great math and science teachers. Countries that perform well in science and math tests have one thing in common: they exclusively hire new teachers from the top 20 percent of a college graduating class. And they pay them well.

For instance the starting salary for an elementary teacher in South Korea is $55,000! In America it is the complete opposite. Most of our new teachers are not in the top 20 percent of their college graduating class. And the unions have dictated salary plans that start off with lower salaries with the promise that if you stay in the system for 20 or more years the pension plan will allow you to buy the cottage on the lake!

This is not to say great teachers are one and the same with being smart. But as an old saying goes “you can not give what do you do not have. Lee Ioacocca, the automotive exec, says it best. He claims “in a truly rationale society the best of us would teach and the rest of us would figure out what to do.”

Nothing, absolutely nothing, will improve in our nation’s pursuit to improve STEM education if we don’t attract the very best teachers to our classrooms. And pay they well.

  • Why did you reach out to SAS to hold this event?

SAS has been a national leader in education issues for early two decades. According to the research I did for my book “The U.S Technology Skills Gap” ,SAS Curriculum Pathways was one of the first digital curriculum programs in America. The company has been at the forefront of reinventing public education through technology. It was a natural choice to hold the event on the SAS campus.

  • Jim Goodnight and Jim Whitehurst are outspoken advocates of more STEM education. What’s your view on the importance of business executives themselves helping to lead this charge?

Improving the science and math aptitudes of America’s youth is not about creating a nation of brainiacs who ace assessment tests. It is all about producing a workforce that has the skills to do work in the global economy of the 21st century. That’s why business executives like Jim Goodnight and Jim Whitehurst, and educators like Scott Ralls,are so passionate about improving the quality of STEM education in America.

They know very futures of their businesses, and the future strength of the American economy and national security, is dependent on our nation’s ability to hire workers who are proficient in math and science.

Note: In part two of our interview, Beach discusses the threat to the U.S. from foreign competition and whether immigration reform is part of the skills gap debate.


Gary Beach is an outspoken advocate of the technology industry and has testified on key issues facing the IT industry before the US House and Senate. He launched an information technology nonprofit organization called “Tech Corps” that encourages  IT professionals to assist the education tech issues of K-12 schools. As an expert on the role of the CIO, IT best practices and future IT predictions, he is frequently quoted by major media organizations such as CNN, USA Today, The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and Businessweek. Beach has been a regular contributor on CNBC’s Squawk Box, Squawk on the Street and Closing Bell for more than 10 years.

Key questions to be discussed:

  • What are the skills needed in the 21st century work environment?
  • How should public education, particularly in grades K-12, be restructured to teach these skills?
  • What responsibility do business leaders and IT executives have to improve public education?
  • How do we measure progress?

 Participants include Beach, Goodnight, Whitehurst and Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System. 

SAS is co-hosting the event along with the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.