Continuing Education

Maddog's Doghouse

Article from Issue 195/2017

No matter who the US President is or why, it's the citizens who need to understand how they can prepare for the jobs that are begging to be filled in modern economies.

On November 8, 2016, the United States was rocked by a historic election. Donald Trump was elected the 45th President on a campaign slogan of "Make America Great Again."

Whether or not you agree that the United States is or ever was great, or even that the word "America" is misused when people talk about the United States, his election by a large portion of people who feel that the economy has left them behind is something that (in retrospect) most of the "professional politicians" have ignored. Whether Donald Trump and his policies will make any difference is to be seen in the future; however, this issue is not just confined to the United States, it is happening all over the world.

In the short term, I do not think governments can do very much to keep jobs in-country, because the problem is not just about the transference of jobs to another part of the world. Certainly that is what most people see, and it lends to the problem, but the real issue is that the kinds of jobs that new and evolving companies offer do not lend themselves, because of automation and mechanization, to the kind of education that most people today receive – or have received in the last 10 years.

Many people today recognize that there is a lack of prospective employees with a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. At the same time that unemployment was reaching its heights, many companies were complaining that they could not find the trained people they needed for their businesses. Unfortunately, STEM-educated people cannot be produced overnight. It requires a solid education in math, practical physics, and general chemistry and biology, most of which are lacking in students who graduated from high schools and universities in the last 10 or 20 years. Please do not think that this is an attack on our educational professionals. If anything, this article is a wake-up call to parents and students of all ages everywhere – not just in the United States.

Competition (and this is no attack against capitalism, either) is going to keep driving the automation of various jobs, which will cause the STEM education needs to go ever higher. Even if a job will not be fully automated, the tools employees use to do the job consequently reduce the number of people needed.

I watched as CAD tools reduced the number of draftsmen (a highly skilled profession) in a large company from 300 to three. Draftsmen no longer had to redraw entire large sheets of paper to make simple changes. A few quick commands to a program would copy the entire design and allow them to make a quick update. This was not a company moving their work to China or some other country. The jobs just went away.

As a computer engineer, I do not regret this path, but I do see the problem getting even more focused in the future, which is why the students of today (even students that are 40 years old) have to face the fact that it will be up to them to get the education and training that they need and to continue being trained for the rest of their lives.

Which brings me to Free and Open Source Software and Hardware.

In the past, automobiles were mostly mechanical. Most people with rudimentary skills in mechanics could understand how an automobile worked and repair it. Young people could work on old cars – "tinkering" with them – and learn how to repair newer cars.

Today, more and more of the mechanical parts are replaced by a simple sensor and a microprocessor, which is typically "closed source." Young "auto mechanics" cannot look at the source code of older cars and see how a newer car works. Cars (and the software that drives them) keep getting more and more sophisticated. Where will we get the auto mechanics of the future, the people trained and knowledgeable about this software?

The same could be said about operating systems, compilers, and the software that drives the cloud. We need more open systems to allow the tinkerers to learn and grow. Five years ago the Raspberry Pi Foundation created a sensation with their small computer that was designed (for the most part) by university professors who realized that new freshmen were not as knowledgeable about computers as the students of 20 years ago. By providing an open platform for high school students to use, the professors made their teaching jobs easier by having students arrive at the university with a higher level of computer knowledge.

For the level of STEM needed in the world today, grades nine through 12 are too late to introduce STEM education. Educators, parents, and the students themselves need to stimulate interest and thirst for STEM knowledge from birth and throughout their lives.

A knowledgable employee is not something that one man or political party can create by themselves; to paraphrase, it takes a village to make this happen.

The Author

Jon maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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