Spring 2016 Essay Contest Winners

Below are the 1st prize submissions for our high school and college Firing Line Essay Contest in response to the question:

“What Is the Greatest Challenge Facing the U.S. Economy?”

Our high school winner was Louisa Bjerke, a 10th grader from Greenwich High School, here are her thoughts

Education 2.0 Learning in the Era of Innovation

By Louisa Bjerke

The greatest challenge to the American economy today is our outdated and stagnant education system that leaves scores of students unprepared for the rapid innovation and incorporation of new technology in the modern workplace.

Our country has gone through three industrial revolutions over the past 250 years and today we are standing on the verge of the fourth. Each revolution has represented a significant shift in skill sets required to make our economy productive and progressive. In the first industrial revolution, competitive manual labor was replaced with mechanized, specialized machinery, which meant sustained economic growth for the first time in American history. Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, the second industrial revolution was hallmarked by mass production and resulted in improved efficiency on an assembly line of focused singular tasks. In response to this technological revolution, our educational system became a skills oriented education with single subjects and focus on single tasks. The “three R’s”, reading, writing and arithmetic were separated into individual subject matters without any interconnectedness. By the third industrial revolution, computer based information technology allowed for manufacturing to become digital and resulted in mass storage of information.  The unparalleled ability of computers to store, sort, retrieve and process information has replaced many jobs that were focused on completing repetitive administrative tasks typically associated with many lower-level office jobs. Despite these significant shifts, the traditional industrial model of education remains unchanged from the basic skills curriculum created nearly 150 years ago.

Now, with the ability to create and produce programmable machinery that can efficiently produce a wide range of products, we are entering a fourth industrial revolution, namely the innovation economy.  In this paradigm, information is ubiquitous and production is moving from single task, mass manufacturing to inexpensive robotics and individually tailored manufacturing.  In line with Adam Smith’s economic theory of the Invisible Hand, the innovation economy will be driven by the free market of ideas and products that aim to capture the consumer’s ever changing demands and tastes.  As new machinery erodes the production cost advantages of mass production assembly lines, the economic compulsion to purchase standardized cheap goods over tailored products will diminish and the innovation economy will take over.  Now the college educated, mid-level jobs that are focused on narrow but finely tuned skill sets are threatened. With that in mind, we have to create an education system that embraces flexible specialization. The real driver of this new economy will be the ability to quickly adapt production to capture new ideas and changing demands. In the innovation economy, success will be defined by the ability to collaborate with many different people across a wide range of specialties and to constantly reconfigure the collaboration network to maximize innovation efficiency.

Our educational framework lags behind this economic reality. Smartphones can now regurgitate facts better than even the brightest student.  Education in the 21st century must be completely transformed and re-imagined to prepare for innovation and entrepreneurship against the backdrop of computers enabling mass storage and easy retrieval of information and robots permitting cheap translation of ideas to finished products. In the past decade, students have slowly moved from passively sitting at individual desks while teachers lectured, to a group learning environment that facilitates critical thinking, open communication and collaboration. Though this more active type of learning encourages students to be creative through collegial communication and constructive feedback, it is still constrained by each group member ultimately being assigned a specific task to produce a defined product.  If we fail to create an education that prepares us for constant innovation, we risk losing our economic leadership position and, even worse, remain stuck in a mass production economy while the world moves on.


Our college essay contest winner was our Former President Zachary Young ’17

Reviving the American Worker:

Structural Gaps in the United States Labor Force

            Today is the age of the so-called “knowledge economy.” Increasingly, workers in developed countries must use knowledge to generate tangible and intangible value in their vocations. Leveraged by technology and global markets, American firms and employees often face winner-take-all business climates. Low-skill jobs in manufacturing have migrated to labor-cheap countries or have been automated by technological innovations. The greatest challenge facing the United States economy is to prepare the American worker to succeed in this environment. This involves identifying structural gaps in the labor force and empowering American workers to solve them.

During the Obama Administration, there has been a disconcerting reversal in labor force trends. Between 1963 and 2000, the civilian labor force participation rate grew steadily from 58 percent to 67 percent. This rate measures people over the age of 16 who are either employed or actively looking for employment. Thus, the United States saw roughly one-tenth of its adult population enter the workforce in the second half of the twentieth century—a momentous economic development. Between 2000 and 2008, labor force participation stalled around 66 percent. Yet since 2009, this rate has been in free fall—reaching 62 percent last month. Suddenly, the productivity gains of half a century have been rolled back considerably.

Meanwhile, those participating in the labor force have struggled to find work. The rate of unemployment—understood expansively to include marginally attached workers—remains 25 percent higher than pre-recession levels. Among the unemployed, the problem of long-term unemployment has risen to historically uncharted levels. Between 1948 and 2008, the long-term unemployed never composed more than 26 percent of the unemployed. In 2010, that figure spiked to 45 percent, and it has since remained above the 1948-2008 range. Such extended lengths of unemployment indicate structural mismatches between the types of jobs that are available and the types of workers looking for them.

Even those workers who have found employment have struggled to keep pace in today’s competitive economic landscape. During the Obama Administration, wage growth has stunted. Since 2009, monthly wage increases have failed to match even the lowest increase seen between 1997 and 2008. This secular stagnation has been especially pronounced for Americans who lack a college degree. Former construction workers, assembly line workers, and coal miners have often been to adjust to new lines of work. Although wage growth has recently been gathering steam, it remains to be seen whether this pattern will sustain itself.

Altogether, fewer Americans are looking for work, fewer Americans are finding work, and fewer Americans are earning more. These trends represent larger problems in the labor market that are unprecedented for a growing economy. As things stand, American workers have not yet contributed their full potential to bull market.

Politically, inequality will continue to be a animated issue so long as the gains of the knowledge economy flow predominantly to a wealthy fraction of the labor force.

To address this labor challenge and take full advantage of its human resources, the United States should lean on the private sector to recruit, train, and empower new scores of American workers. Currently, the federal government spends $15 billion per year on 46 different job training programs with little accountability or demonstrated results. Rather than attempting to create a 47th or 48th program, policymakers should latch onto the growth engine of private employers. In order to accomplish this, the federal government should remove red tape around hiring and firing that prevents firms from taking bets on low-skilled workers. Moreover, the federal government should partially subsidize corporate efforts to transition the long-term unemployed into stable vocations.

There is little time to waste. As of 2013, 15 percent of 16-24 year-olds were not working or in school or college. This represents an annual cost of $94 billion to federal taxpayers. Even worse, this economic failure makes it likely that these young people will never become productive, well-functioning citizens. Failure to involve these young people today will bear long-term consequences for our society.

The American economy has plowed through eight years of global uncertainty without dipping into recession. American stock markets have near-universally recovered from the 2008-09 financial crisis. Inflation has anchored at low rates ever since the Great Recession. Commodities like oil continue to depreciate in value, passing on savings to consumers. To cash in on these opportunities for all Americans, however, policymakers must first address the challenge of creating a labor force for the knowledge age.


Thanks again to all of our essay contestants!