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Building a Nation of High-Tech Workers

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

A youth playing on a computer

An astute Wall Street executive says that going to college today may be a waste because of changing economic conditions and the rise of the global marketplace. Instead, Bill Gross, Managing Director of PIMCO, the world’s largest mutual fund, argues that some young adults should consider skipping an undergraduate education in favor of technology education, internships and apprenticeships.

Gross says he believes that college served a purpose when jobs were abundant, but in this economy – with a 9% unemployment rate – a job isn’t a sure thing. That number is even higher for people with disabilities, who face a 15% jobless rate. Furthermore, the average college graduate has $24,000 of debt and total student loans.

For people with disabilities, Gross could be onto something. There’s a growing need for middle and high-tech skills across the U.S., where companies are currently turning to foreign workers to fill. People with disabilities are technologically savvy; technology (and assistive technology) helps put this group on a level playing field, and could be the answer to higher unemployment rates among this talent pool. There’s also the added benefit for that tech jobs allow for flexible schedules and workers can often work virtually, which is a positive for those who cannot work in an office.

Gross says U.S. government must take a leading role in job creation. While he says the private sector is the best source of long-term job creation, the government must put its faith in our nation’s youth – which will encourage corporate spending on a homegrown marketplace that’s skilled in math, science and technology, he says. Where would the jobs come from? Investments in new industries, like green technologies.

Gross isn’t the only financial leader who believes on-the-job tech training could do far more for a person’s career and the U.S. economy than a four-year degree. Peter Thiel, an early investor in Facebook and head of hedge fund Clarium Capital, recently established a foundation to give 20 $100,000 grants to teenagers who would drop out of school and become world-changing visionaries.

Of course, not all students can be like Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates and drop out of school. Economist Fareed Zakaria proposes a program similar to the GI Bill, with a focus on retraining existing unemployed workers and redirecting future students. Instead of liberal arts, Zakaria suggests focusing on technical education, technical institutes and polytechnics as well as apprenticeship programs.

Other countries seemingly have already taken this path. In Germany, people with good technical skills but limited college education can earn a decent living, Gross says. In China, investment in green energy requires the government to get involved and fund projects, which has created millions of jobs.

In summary, our country needs to do more to give high school graduates a leg up over global competition. The same argument certainly holds true for people with disabilities, a group that can truly benefit from technology-skill building and training programs that will help them better compete in the 21st century marketplace.