By Ángel Cabrera, Thunderbird President and Clinton Global Initiative 2010 Topic Leader
Some nations have oil, some have ore, and others have rich biodiversity and farmland. But the most valuable resource at the disposal of any nation is its human talent.
Unlike other natural resources, the benefits of human talent are self-sustaining, self-multiplying and contagious. The more we use it, the more we get.
Human talent also adds value to other resources – or creates value where none existed before. Oil would be worthless without human talent to refine the raw material and harness its potential through innovations such as the combustion engine.
Lake water becomes drinking water, wind becomes wind energy, and mud becomes bricks and mortar through the power of human talent.
Best of all, human talent is inexhaustible. If I acquire one skill or learn a fact, there is not less of that skill or knowledge available for others to acquire. Everyone potentially can learn to use a computer, install a solar panel or design a new drug.
But like other resources, human talent must be refined and harnessed to reach its full potential. The refining process occurs through education, and the harnessing of human talent occurs when well-educated people take their knowledge and put it to work.
Both things are necessary for the world to address its most urgent challenges, such as poverty, inadequate health care, gender inequality and climate change. Society will not be able to tackle these challenges unless we find new ways to refine and harness human talent on a global scale.
We need dramatic improvements in education, as well as hundreds of millions of new jobs where people can apply their talent. Demographic reports show the urgency.
The world population sits today at around 6.9 billion people. The United Nations estimates we will add another 2.2 billion people in the next four decades, which amounts to about 56 million more people every year.
The vast majority of this growth will happen in the developing world, and a full 90 percent will occur in Asia and Africa alone.
Yet, as overwhelming as these numbers are, the education challenge we face is not just one of volume, but one of quality.
If the industrial revolution lowered the skills bar through mechanization of production, the information revolution has pushed it up significantly. Competitiveness is no longer defined by the availability of cheap, low-skilled labor, but by the availability of well-educated human talent.
Global companies in the post-recession world need talented managers, engineers and researchers prepared for knowledge-based jobs.
Leaders from the public and private sectors will pay special attention to these issues during the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, which opens Sept. 21 in New York.
As one of four topic leaders at this event, I have worked with President Clinton’s staff to organize discussions on new ways to harness the human potential through innovations in education and quality job creation. We will focus on three key areas: Democratizing education, moving beyond microfinance, and alleviating youth unemployment.
One key to economic growth worldwide is to expand higher education opportunities for underserved people traditionally blocked from the system.
College and university graduates drive innovation, and innovation drives productivity in the world economy. Yet many people never have a chance to attend higher education institutions because, among other reasons, the dominant traditional model that has not changed much in 1,000 years is ill prepared to offer the scale and quality the world demands.
Fortunately, technology has created new ways to deliver knowledge and lower barriers of entry.
Internet-based distance learning methodologies have proven to be at least as effective as traditional instruction. Technology can put the learner in control, can help increase time on task, can lower the cost of delivery and enable scalable procedures to reach audiences of hundreds or even thousands — rather than dozens.
Developing nations facing the challenge of providing access to higher education to hundreds of thousands of new students will be hard pressed to develop models that are different from the American or European university. Technology will help them leapfrog into new models that are unlikely to emerge from an entrenched system.
People who find access to higher education will then need knowledge-based jobs where they can put their talent to work.
Much attention has been paid at bottom-of-the-pyramid microfinance, which provides capital to individual families for self-employment. However, few micro-enterprises ever grow into small or medium-sized businesses that create knowledge-based employment for others.
At the other end of the spectrum, much attention has been paid to venture capital and large-scale enterprises that promise change on a global scale. A single Silicon Valley startup, for example, can lead to hundreds or even thousands of knowledge-based jobs.
However, the greatest potential to grow the economy and create knowledge-based jobs comes in the space between these extremes.
Unfortunately, many small and medium-sized enterprises lack the knowledge, access to capital and management expertise necessary to grow their businesses into economic engines of growth. These challenges are compounded in many developing economies, where political instability and violence hamper economic activity.
Society must find ways to help these companies grow from five employees to 50, from 50 to 100, and so on. We must unleash the power of high-potential entrepreneurs who can scale their ventures into businesses that have real economic impact.
Society will need these small and medium-sized enterprises to absorb an unprecedented surge of young workers looking for meaningful employment.
Today, more than one in six people in the world is between the ages of 15 and 25 — the largest youth “bulge” in human history.
This trend is most pronounced in developing countries. According to 2007 World Bank data, 1.3 billion of the world’s 1.5 billion youth live in developing countries.
Through the efforts of governments and civil society, the number of youth attending secondary and tertiary schools has increased, but labor markets in many countries are not able to accommodate the new wave of skilled young graduates.
Without a strong focus on entrepreneurship and a holistic approach to providing the environment necessary for new ventures to grow, many societies will face the unenviable challenge of dealing with a disgruntled, underemployed younger generation.
All of these challenges demand urgent consideration. But solutions can be found as society learns to harness the human potential.
Thunderbird School of Global Management President Ángel Cabrera, Ph.D., is serving as a Topic Leader for the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative. You can follow him on Twitter @CabreraAngel or on his global leadership blog at http://knowledgenetwork.thunderbird.edu/cabrera.
|Harnessing the Human Potential: Ángel Cabrera describes the power of human innovation and ingenuity.||Inclusive Higher Education: Ángel Cabrera describes two perverse incentives in higher education.|
|Democratizing Education: Ángel Cabrera calls for updating the traditional model of higher education.||Beyond Microfinance: Ángel Cabrera describes the source of knowledge-based jobs.|