American workers face increasingly tough competition from overseas, from people who are highly educated but willing to work for much less than their U.S. counterparts, an education policy expert said.
The trend means U.S. businesses must aim to be industry leaders and innovators in order to prevail, said Marc Tucker, president and chief executive officer of the National Center on Education and the Economy. Tucker called for overhauling the nation's education system to better prepare students for college, and to develop ways for existing workers to improve their skills, as well.
Tucker spoke at the Workforce Literacy and Economic Development Summit on Wednesday in Buffalo, which drew participants from business, government, labor, education and nonprofit organizations. The event took an expanded view of literacy, to include workers' ability to think critically, solve problems and conduct research on the Internet.
Tucker said the globalized economy and technology advances have put more pressure on American workers, with many U.S. jobs being supplanted by outsourcing or automation.
That pressure might lead U.S. companies to cut their wages to try to compete, thus lowering the standard of living for workers, he said. But Tucker offered an alternative response: employers striving to be a market leader for a particular product or service and who are willing to pay high wages to get the best people.
He cited Apple Inc. as an "iconic example" of that approach, with the worldwide demand for the technology company's iPod player. Tucker cited Apple's strength in everything from marketing and sales to product design and manufacturing. The company must pay high wages to keep the most creative, innovative people, he said.
"That is their resource," Tucker said. "Ultimately it is their only resource. The United States will be able to maintain its standard of living only if firms like Apple dominate the market in every industry in which they choose to compete."
The summit also featured a panel discussion assessing the problems Buffalo Niagara faces in creating jobs and preparing its workers for a globalized economy.
Steve Finch, plant manager of General Motors' Tonawanda engine plant, said he recently briefed the workers there about the site's standing compared to GM plants in Germany and Mexico, underscoring the operation's link to the global economy.
Finch said GM is also trying to nurture the next generation of workers. About 15 volunteers from the Tonawanda plant help students at a Buffalo elementary school learn principles in science and math. The hope is it will show students the connection between their studies and potential career choices like engineering, he said.
"What we need from people are their brains," he said. "We need people that can communicate, that can create innovative ideas, people that can problem solve, people that can work together."
Wednesday's event was hosted by Good Schools for All and the Read to Succeed Buffalo literacy coalition. A follow-up meeting is being planned for February.