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Dear 2020 contenders: Education can STEM the gaps to the American voter

  • STEM

September 24, 2019
by Rick Lazio, alliantgroup Senior Vice President &
Harold Ford Jr., alliantgroup Strategy Advisory Board Member
Published in Des Moines Register

The education system in America still ranks among the middle of the pack globally, particularly in science, technology, engineering and math – the “STEM” fields. 2020 candidates from both parties must seize on the opportunity to show American voters the importance of improving our education system, and the dramatic positive impact this change can bring.

The number of presidential candidates continues to dwindle for the 2020 election, but the issues debated remain the same: Medicare for all, the economy and national security. And although our education system is being discussed in terms of higher education and its costs, a key problem facing our nation’s ability to properly educate its citizens has been shockingly ignored. 

The widening skills gap in the U.S., along with the millions of technical jobs that need to be filled, make improving our education system imperative to the success of our nation, and an issue that must be addressed now. It’s a topic that every American voter can get behind, but that, surprisingly, no candidate has yet taken the mantle on.

The situation is so dire that American companies are literally turning away business because they can’t recruit enough technically skilled workers, according to multiple conversations conducted with business owners and managers across the nation. 

The strengthening of our country’s education system, particularly with respect to STEM, offers a platform tenet for all voters who care about the economy, jobs, innovation and a bright future for our children. Some solutions exist, like the Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation competition, but much more can and should be done. Ignoring the importance of STEM as a foundational, elementary element of our nation’s education system means continued consequences, many of which we’re already dealing with.

For example, alarmingly, the U.S. struggles to generate enough STEM graduates, and consistently ranks among the middle of the pack internationally in core subjects like science, mathematics and reading.  Without the necessary talent graduating from our colleges and technical schools, our country lacks the source code for a powerful, skilled workforce – the backbone of a strong economy. Indeed, nearly 60 percent of employers struggle to fill job vacancies within 12 weeks; a clear consequence of our country’s perpetually low number of STEM graduates.

Further, the U.S. already has millions of unfilled STEM jobs, and that number will continue to grow if not addressed at a national level. According to, by 2020 there could be nearly a million more IT jobs than U.S. college graduates available to fill them, representing a $500 billion economic opportunity waiting to be realized. These staggering numbers, if corrected, could kick the U.S. economy into high gear and ensure its leadership as a productive powerhouse for decades to come.

The place to start? On the 2020 presidential campaign trail, where the policy and political possibilities are better and more salient than ever. Regardless of party or persuasion, there are ample reasons to strengthen America’s education system.Get the Register Opinion newsletter in your inbox.

As these campaigns have evolved, we have clearly seen that a great deal of energy in this cycle has been generated by the sense that earnings for the bottom quintiles of income are woefully lagging. This is a trend that can be remedied through a commitment to broadening STEM educational access in order to bring our workforce the skills needed to match marketplace demand.

All this is not to say that the candidates disregard education reform wholesale. There’s much discussion around free college tuition, but this is insufficient and should not stop candidates from taking a creative approach to improve our primary schools.

Incremental changes, such as increasing teacher pay, can be ways to warm up voters for broader “out-of-the-box” education policy principles. However, these promises must be grounded in reality and substance.

Regardless of the campaign promise, and who it comes from, the 2020 election winner must power the presidency to shine a light on connecting STEM education to our economic goals – and seek tangible outcomes that reverse troubling trends.  

Focusing on results-driven STEM education and training is key to ensuring our students have the tools to succeed in the classroom and beyond, and aligns well with rewarding those who push our students to new heights.

The American dream is built from the ground up, from our country’s first days through every phase of innovation. We made the first steps on the moon and birthed the internet, proving that our country’s greatest success stories are rooted in a strong, supportive education system.

A fruitful future for the U.S. relies on evolving our education system, a mission that must be treated as tantamount to America’s moonshot. For those men and women seeking to be the next President of the United States, the opportunity to spearhead this historic initiative is yours for the taking.

Harold Ford, Jr., is a former U.S. congressman and alliantgroup Strategic Advisory Board member. Rick Lazio is a former U.S. congressman and alliantgroup senior vice president.

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