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Az lacks educated & skilled workforce needed to truly compete
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Az lacks educated & skilled workforce needed to truly compete

Arizona is not what it could be — not in education, not in economic development, not in immigration policy, or how we care for our children, our poor and our sick.

In days gone by, Arizona built big things like canals and cities. We focused on our future. These days, we seem to be more interested in running out the clock than embracing the future. Tomorrow is not at the forefront of our thoughts; it lies dormant somewhere in the back of our mind.

So, let’s look at a few facts about “today.”

As we near the end of 2013, we rank:

  • 43rd in education
  • 22nd in infant mortality
  • 37th in median household income
  • 17th in life expectancy
  • 37th in exports

No, Arizona is not what it could be. But it can be.

While we have many challenges and deficiencies to overcome, we can be optimistic that, at the same time, we’re on a positive trajectory, with many good things happening in economic development: the development of a new unmanned-airplane industry; Scottsdale’s blossoming technology corridor; a host of new biotech, medical cure and research facilities. Apple’s choice of Mesa as the location for its newest U.S. manufacturing facility will create 700 jobs in its first year alone.

As part of an in-depth strategic economic-development project with the Arizona Commerce Authority, Morrison Institute for Public Policy looked at what makes up the basic foundation of strategic planning in Arizona. To that end, we indexed and summarized major efforts currently under way across the state, as well as some of the major plans of the past decade. A summary and posted chapters are on our website.

We need to collaborate

These reports encompass eight broad categories — aerospace and defense; bioscience; infrastructure; trade with Mexico; science and technology; sustainability and solar power; the Sun Corridor; and Arizona’s economic competitiveness. In addition to investment, if there is a single thread running through them is the value of and need for collaboration.

That was underscored recently by Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, who told The Arizona Republic editorial board that the Apple deal was a team effort, that we will succeed individually only to the level we succeed as a region. That cannot happen if we don’t address an educational system that is inextricably linked to an attractive and innovative business climate and, just as important, the ability for the state to compete.

As noted at our annual State of Our State Conference last month, regardless of how you slice and dice data points, the current education-funding level simply isn’t enough. Arguing over whether the state ranks 48th or 45th or 42nd in the nation on any of these measures misses the point. The important fact is that we are below the national average in educational attainment. We are not serving our children well; we are not positioning our economy to prosper.

Arizonans know we need to do better. In Morrison Institute’s most recent poll, 64 percent of the respondents said we don’t spend enough on our public-school system overall, with 50 percent believing we should spend more from kindergarten through middle school. Arizonans repeatedly have said in our polls — and often at the voting polls — that they believe we should invest more money in education. In fact, 52 percent said public schools don’t prepare students to pursue specific career paths.

This is the fourth year straight of our polls — not to mention many others that are done periodically — in which Arizonans overwhelmingly cite education as a top state priority, feel education is underfunded and want the system improved. Arizonans also give public schools a poor report card. As the Legislature prepares to go into session in January, it might keep in mind the link between a skilled workforce and economic viability as a foundation for Arizona’s future.

And that skilled human capital we need? This year, for the first time, there were more Latinos in Arizona K-12 classes than non-Latino Whites. This is our future workforce, and these changing demographics show our opportunity: While other states will suffer from a worker shortage as mostly White Baby Boomers move into retirement, we will have a young workforce. The question is: What kind of workforce?

The education choice

We can choose to have a highly educated and highly skilled workforce as we stake our claim to a competitive status economically, or we can drop to a second- or third-tier state with an undereducated, underachieving, low-wage workforce.

By default, we can choose an undereducated, primarily service-oriented workforce that doesn’t earn enough to contribute adequately to the state revenues and venues to support the quality of life our parents and grandparents came here for. Or, by commitment and collaboration, we can work together to do something about it.

Despite some laudable individual efforts, the education needle hasn’t moved in a dozen years. We need a concerted action plan to improve not only this particular failing, but Arizona’s overall poor academic standing. Our future depends on it.

Morrison Institute projections show that without significant changes in educational attainment, the state’s unemployment rate will rise from today’s level — around 8 percent — to nearly 10 percent by 2030. These projections are based on a higher-than-average rate of unemployment among Latino Arizonans, many of whom do not graduate from high school, much less college.

We’ve got to change that equation, otherwise the number of unemployed Arizonans age 25 and older will rise from 400,000 people in 2010 to nearly 700,000 individuals by 2030. The impact on everything from family to the economy would be dire. As a state and for many years to come, Arizona would suffer the consequences.

The good news is that the opportunity for greatness is still there. But the door is quickly closing. We can step into the future with confidence and purpose, or we can hang back and be content to be just OK — actually, (much) less than OK.

Building on the success of past efforts, business, community and commerce leaders have paved the way for Arizona’s future. But it takes an educated population to be the drivers of the new economy. We’ve got a lot of ground to make up to ensure they’re equipped for the trip. Otherwise, we all get left behind.

Let’s embark on the road to greatness today.

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

Sue Clark-Johnson is executive director of Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University. She joined ASU after retiring as president of the Gannett Newspaper Division.

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