Summit: Future U.S. Innovation Tied to Reshaping K-12 Education, Reforming Immigration Policies

ARLINGTON, Va. – To foster more innovation in the future, business needs to help reshape K-12 education to grow better thinkers, and the United States should reform its immigration policy to attract and keep talent from various parts of the world.

Those were two of the main points that business leaders made Tuesday during the inaugural “Innovation Summit” hosted by The Atlantic Magazine.

“Now, universities are training many people around the globe and (the United States) is forcing them to go home,” said Boeing CEO James McNerney. “Great for them, other countries and the global economy. But it cuts off that flow that has led to populating our companies and institutions with great people.

McNerney said he favors “a much more liberal immigration policy, particularly as it relates to the kind of workers we need to fill [science, technology, engineering and mahmatics] kinds of jobs.”

“I think it’s very unwise to pursue the policy we are pursuing now, because it takes down the number of jobs in this country, forces us to go elsewhere in some cases, and we do have people who live outside the United States who want to come here and work here,” said McNerney, who serves on President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and as chair of the president’s Export Council.

McNerney made his remarks in the historic lobby terminal A at Reagan National Airport. In the backdrop was Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner, a more fuel-efficient plane that several speakers pointed to as a prime example of the kind of innovation that can take place when the industry is able to harness the talents of diverse people from around the world.

McNerney said roughly half of the work that involved construction of the plane was done offshore.

“We’re depending on other people’s capital,” McNerney said. But he made no apologies for relying on talent from other nations.

“We get demographic advantages on the marketing side by partnering around the world, “You have to be (globally) engaged, not only for marketing but capability.

“More engineers are being produced outside of the country than inside,” McNerney said. “We need to tap into engineering talent on a global basis.”

He also urged people to “remember how this country was built” by the sons and daughters of immigrants.

McNerney called for a greater focus on producing more STEM-educated students at the K-12 level – something he says his company is doing itself.

“There is no single issue that we spend more time on – other than building airplanes – than education,” McNerney said. “Our specific focus is K-12 because we think that’s where the leverage is.”

He said Boeing is currently working on an “Academy of Arts and Sciences Project,” and emphasized the liberal arts aspect of the project because it fosters a more globalized education that involves the ability to communicate and think critically – things he said are often lost in the discussion about the importance of STEM education.

“It’s not either-or,” McNerney said. “It’s both.

McNerney was hardly a lone voice in his call for the United States to be more welcoming of foreign nationals who are educated here.

“We have the universities. They go to our graduate schools,” said Samuel Palmisano, Chairman at IBM. “Let’s keep them here, creating modern companies that are going to engage the world.”

Palmisano said he sees a “whole new age of information technology” where research is more important than ever.

“It’s not about snazzy gadgets and games,” Palmisano said. “It’s about the ability to apply all these things” to improve society, lifestyles and deal with practical problems that range from pollution to public safety.

Similar to Boeing, IBM has also gotten into the business of education, helping to launch a PTECH School (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) in New York that is expected to be replicated in Chicago and Baltimore. Graduates are considered “first in line” to get jobs with IBM.

Palmisano described the school as a 9-14 school from which students graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

While Tuesday’s summit touched on a variety of topics, from tax policy and government regulation to how partisan politics often gets in the way of progress, higher education repeatedly came up for the role it can play in fostering innovation.

Rathindra DasGupta, Program Director of the Innovation Corp and Directorate for Engineering at the National Science Foundation, touted NSF’s Industry & University Cooperative Research Program, also known as I/UCRC.

DasGupta described I/UCRC as a “happy marriage among industry, government and faculty members” in which NSF provides seed money to create centers where faculty members and students do “industry relevant research.”

Business members of the initiative include Sam’s Club and Toyota, both of which DasGupta said have reaped benefits from the initiative.

Through the program, he said, 30 percent of the 500 or so students working at various I/UCRC research centers are ultimately hired by companies that belong to the initiative.