America's Injection Point: Tech

I’ve found it difficult to shift policy conversations away from what politicians, talk show hosts, and Beltway insiders love to obsess about. As important as the discussions may be, they almost always fail to fix our fundamental problems. What really makes America great? And what threatens its decline?

You undoubtedly have your own definition of greatness. But I prefer to focus on what America actually does, better than any other nation—in terms of security, innovation, prosperity, and creativity. Just for a moment, accept these characteristics as key definitions of American greatness, arising out of the way America actually functions in the world. You can argue that we’re not as powerful as we used to be, that our economy is faltering, that we don’t innovate enough, and that African rap is better. But sheer firepower, dollars, box office, and music downloads objectively show dominance if not “greatness.”

Now, given these characteristics and the problems that threaten them, what part of the system could be fixed to make most of these characteristics function better? What fix might make America more resilient?

What’s the injection point?

To an engineer like me, the answer is obvious: technology. Our military has the best technology. Our economy’s growth has been driven by technological innovation for a century. Technology lies behind our military success, our agriculture and aerospace leadership, the iPhone, Amazon, GPS, music downloads, the music itself, as well as our increasingly computer-generated movies. I’m not saying that technology causes all these things, or that tech is the one driver of America’s greatness. But it’s the one trait that improves every part and contributes to the system’s resilience.

Given that tech is the injection point, what exactly is the fix? For that matter, what’s the problem?

“At first, there doesn’t seem to be a problem. The job market in American tech is growing faster than the non-tech market. From 2004 to 2014—not exactly boom times—the overall job market grew by a sluggish 4.5%, while tech jobs expanded by 31%. Technology outpaced even fast-growing sectors like health care and business services. Include all the jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and the future looks especially bright. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projected growth in STEM jobs of 14% between 2010 and 2020; so far, that projection seems right on track.

STEM jobs pay far better than non-STEM jobs—twice as well, in fact. The median annual salary for STEM jobs in 2014 was $78,610, more than double the $33,900 median salary for non-STEM (the mean salary for STEM was $85,570, and it was $47,230 for non-STEM). Granted, despite the growth, STEM jobs make up only 6.2% of the national workforce, or about 8.6 million people. But these same people come up with the greatest innovations and creations, and they add to the nation’s military power and its prestige abroad. They drive the economy forward and help create more jobs. They’re the leading edge of the American system.

So what is the problem? It lies with the Americans who make our technology; or, rather, the severe, growing shortage of technologically educated and trained Americans.