Politicians are missing an opportunity on the economy

Originally published by The Hill here. Almost nothing has more influence over a nation’s welfare than the growth rate of its economy.  Economic growth allows us to expand educational opportunities, […]

Originally published by The Hill here.

Almost nothing has more influence over a nation’s welfare than the growth rate of its economy.  Economic growth allows us to expand educational opportunities, healthcare services and access, employment prospects, welfare, and security, while reducing crime, poverty, barriers to success, wage gaps, and even the national deficit.  The technology sector, in particular, may have the greatest return to prosperity while additionally holding the highest potential for improving the lives of the poorest and least advantaged among us.  So, why are political debates veering so far from what really matters to us all?

While knowing that economic growth is imperative to future success, too many of our elected and appointed leaders continue to focus on topics that most consider mere distractions.  “Jobs” are the closest most candidates get to discussing the underlying economics of our country.  Yet, while more jobs would be great, they are but a byproduct of growth, not the other way around.

If we are willing to concede economic growth’s expected effect (as sane economists do), policymakers might want to further investigate which particular sectors are more likely to compel it to move in a positive direction, and focus their energies accordingly.  While some may point to the medical, financial, and other service industries as being among the most substantial job creators in recent years, the tech sector may have the greatest potential to grow the fastest in the near future, the added benefit of creating the most opportunities to advance lower-income groups, as well as an increasingly strong connection with every other sector of the economy.

A recent report found that tech added 200,000 jobs to the economy last year (a 50 percent increase over 2014’s contribution), now making up nearly 10 percent of the economy and 12 percent of private payrolls.  Many expect that this rapid growth is merely the beginning of the development of an exponential curve.  Interestingly enough, however, this data doesn’t acknowledge the increase in demand for tech workers as hundreds of thousands of unfilled positions remain open each year.

In fact, the cybersecurity segment of the tech sector grew so rapidly in recent years that 210,000 jobs remained vacant last year alone, which has increased more than 75 percent in the previous five years.  With an average starting salary 10 percent higher than even the steep starting salaries now well-known in the broader tech sector, combined with a lower education threshold than many computer science or engineering positions, cybersecurity may present the best opportunity for rapid employment and income growth.

Yet, those who need jobs the most are rapidly being left behind in these tech-related jobs.  It is well-known that Hispanics, African Americans, and other minorities tend to have lower wages and overall wealth, as well as the highest rates of unemployment, while remaining acutely underrepresented in the rapidly growing tech sector.  If we could find a way to remove these disparities in all tech-related STEM fields, our economy would add approximately $200 billion this year, more than doubling our current growth rate.  Include the dynamic ripple effects of these new jobs and the numbers will likely be far higher, benefitting all Americans.

Given that tech and cyber have such high demand and future expected growth, we should find ways to leverage unemployed and low-income individuals to provide a solution that not only helps rapidly growing industries to continue to grow rapidly (with American workers), but one that also helps those who need the most help.  One of the best ways to do so would be for policymakers to shift educational incentives and improve curriculum choices.  Our educational system evolves too slowly to keep up with current economic demands, while current incentives additionally impede our ability to solve our country’s future workforce needs.

For example, employers in rapidly-growing cybersecurity industry do not always require a bachelor’s degree, contrary to most professional career paths today, instead increasingly relying on certificate programs and other turnkey vocational-style or workforce retraining programs in order to fill positions.  We can quickly train thousands of interested candidates for a fraction of the cost of a typical education and with a near guarantee that they will find a very well-paying job, if only we focus our efforts on getting candidates into the right positions.

Innovation has not always been the hallmark of our legislative and regulatory processes (okay, it never has), but if there was ever a time to change it is now.  While prosperity continues to improve for an increasingly small portion of the country, growth is beginning to suffer and slow, Americans continue to be educated in fields unrelated to the demands of the country, and employers look elsewhere to fulfill their demands.  We have an unprecedented opportunity to make all American’s lives better, if our nation’s leaders gave it the attention it deserves.

Vélez-Hagan is an economic policy researcher at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, founder of the National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, and author of The Common Sense behind Basic Economics (Lexington Books, 2015). @JVelezHagan