In his latest book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, Tom Friedman argues that the US needs to catch up significantly in areas like modern infrastructure, education, scientific research, energy efficiency, political effectiveness and fiscal responsibility. Part one provides a brief overview of this legacy, and Friedman’s “frustrated optimism” going forward.
Part 2: Skill Sets for the 21st century
In his recent talk at Florida International University, Tom Friedman discussed skill sets and how competitive the job market is for young graduates. They now are competing directly with students from around the world for essentially the same jobs, even though they live in different countries. This goes way beyond outsourcing lower wage jobs. There are highly educated, skilled, and creative people all around the world who, thanks to technology, can work for any business no matter where it’s located. He warned the students that most everything they have learned in college will be obsolete within just five years, that they will have to be learning and re-learning constantly as they enter the workforce and throughout their careers. They will have to be ready to adapt quickly and always perform at the top of their game.
Friedman spoke with corporate leaders about who they look for in hiring. They informed him that standout employees demonstrate remarkable initiative, are good at not only problem-solving, but looking for problems to solve. In other words, they discover and solve problems before others, including their superiors, are even aware the problems exist. The formula for success involves excellent skills, inquisitive minds and a willingness to take risks.1
The high level of competition in today’s job market could be attributed to the fact that the world is now, as Friedman calls it, “hyper-connected.” In That Used to Be Us, he writes about the convergence of globalization and the IT revolution as, “new technologies erase boundaries, break down walls, and connect the previously disconnected. Then those connected people and firms and governments build up webs of trade, commerce, investment, innovation, and collaboration that create markets for, and demand for, more technologies to connect people at even lower costs.”2
In this new phase of hyper-connectivity, what does it mean for us here in the US? In a conversation with IBM’s Vice President for Strategy, Joel Cawley, Friedman portrays a world where those nations, firms and individuals that can best process and apply the infinite amount of information pulsating through the global networks will have the upper hand. Being able to figure out what is most important, having a population that is creative and imaginative, and having strong and effective sets of rules and policies will be the key differentiators. And if it was not clear before, it is now; the path to continued economic success is deeply dependent on our education system. As we debate policies on taxes, health care, national defense, and job creation, education still struggles to get the attention it deserves. And it is no longer optional. In the past a middle class lifestyle could be had with a modest education; that is no longer the case.