The science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov died more than two decades ago, but that did not stop him from writing about a trip to the World’s Fair of 2014.
Fifty years ago, Asimov walked into the GE exhibition at the New York World’s Fair of 1964 and declared that “the direction in which man is traveling is viewed with buoyant hope, nowhere more so than at the General Electric pavilion.” What he saw there inspired him to imagine the world in 2014 in an essay for the New York Times.
His predictions of underground suburban homes with glowing walls, kitchens that can prepare “automeals” to order and appliances powered by nuclear batteries are still over the horizon. But Asimov was also smitten with GE’s take on the classroom of the future and he put emphasis on science education. “It is not only the techniques of teaching that will advance, however, but also the subject matter will change,” Asimov writes. “All the high-school students will be taught the fundamentals of computer technology, will become proficient in binary arithmetic and will be trained to perfection in the use of the computer languages that will have developed out of those like the contemporary Fortran.”
To him, such skills were not a choice. He said that “the lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine. Indeed, the most somber speculation I can make about A.D. 2014 is that in a society of enforced leisure, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!”
The emphasis is his and “enforced leisure” could be Asimov’s euphemism for what we now call the skills gap. Unlike nuclear batteries, the gap is very real. There are 600,000 open jobs in the U.S. that require advanced manufacturing skills. More than 82 percent of American manufacturers cannot find skilled workers to fill openings. “U.S. manufacturers are the most competitive in the world, but we will need a highly skilled and trained workforce to meet the growing demand,” Russell Stokes, president and CEO of GE Transportation, recently said on IdeasLab.
Last fall, GE, Alcoa, Boeing and Lockheed Martin launched the Get Skills to Work coalition designed to train and mentor veterans and match them with jobs. The program, which also includes the Gary Sinise Foundation, has a goal to reach out to 100,000 veterans by 2015. GE started hiring the program’s first graduates this spring.
GE is also supporting STEM education. Students from Cleveland’s MC2STEM high school, for example, are taking classes at GE’s Nela Park labs and work with GE mentors. Some 95 percent of MC2STEM students graduate and 84 percent go to college. Ahead of them is a lot of work, but they will not have to worry about “enforced leisure.”