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Keen: Change does Long Island good

Photo Credit: Illustration by Janet Hamlin

W. Hubert Keen is president of Farmingdale State College.

 

Long Island has long sustained a vibrant economic and social environment, and it has by necessity also been a place of transformation. When Farmingdale State College was founded as an agricultural institute 100 years ago -- on April 15, 1912 -- the economy of the region was based largely on agriculture and had been for generations. Many of the farmers surely believed their sons and daughters would follow in the footsteps of their parents and ancestors, tilling the soil, planting and harvesting.

While agriculture continues to be an important component of our economy -- indeed, Suffolk County is the largest producer in the state -- farming alone could not sustain us as the pace and scale of change accelerated. Fortunately, Long Island transformed itself.

As the defense contracting industry grew to employ tens of thousands of Long Islanders from the 1940s to the 1980s, the landscape changed rapidly. Many of the potato fields and pumpkin farms were given over to industrial plants and assembly lines -- and to suburban residential neighborhoods. The key to that new success, and to keeping pace with the changing occupations that supported it, was the educated personnel who came and created the designs, implemented manufacturing operations and became specialists in the technical fields that supported the new industry. The hum of tractors was replaced by the roar of the F-14.

Then, in 1989, the Cold War ended. The defense industry in the region shrunk, and Long Island had to adapt again. To a great extent, the economy of Long Island recovered and stabilized because engineers and scientists who left the defense industry remained in the area and applied their ingenuity and talents to creating numerous new businesses, many of which still exist today. The key was their education, high-level technical skills and experience -- and their dedication to the area.

Now, more than two decades later, we are still in transition, and it is essential to find ways to maintain our economic development.

Long Island has great natural beauty and valuable natural resources: beaches and ocean access, fisheries and vineyards. These features add economic diversity, which in turn lends important stability to our economy. That stability comes in considerable part because you can't "offshore" beaches and wine making. Although our natural resources are here to stay -- as long as we protect and use them in a sustainable manner -- we've learned from farming and defense contracting that they can't assure our future.

Some thriving economies in the world exist with fewer natural resources than Long Island, importing almost everything they need. Nations such as Singapore, Finland, South Korea and Israel not only sustain their economies with sparse natural resources, they prosper. Their main resource? Educational attainment, which in turn leads to a multiplicity of innovations and economic output.

 

The next transformations will come, as we have learned from the last 100 years. How can we prepare? It's not hard to identify the key: human capital, developed to a very high degree through education and quality of experiences. Here are the actions we should take to prepare.

First, acknowledge and support the development of the workforce at multiple levels as essential to economic competitiveness in the longer term. It is too easy to relegate educational quality to secondary status, and for business and industry to "offshore" manufacturing operations or find lower cost labor that can be separated from the design and development phase. The smaller core of knowledge workers who carry out the latter tasks don't want to leave, but we need the whole range, including advanced manufacturing, and we can only accomplish that if a highly educated workforce is available.

Second, ignore the absurd claim that we send too many students to college -- Bill Gates and Steve Jobs not withstanding -- and acknowledge that the higher the general educational level of a population, the greater its productivity and standard of living. In 1940, only 5 percent of the U.S. population held bachelor's degrees. The most recent U.S. Census shows that number to exceed 30 percent. If that sounds impressive -- and it has been a huge factor in many areas of this country's advancement -- it is equally disconcerting to know that we have fallen to 10th in the world in this measure.

In order to improve, we must do a better job of addressing the poor performance of some of our neediest schools and accelerate the education of more students in science, technology, engineering and math. A number of regional educational institutions, including my own, are addressing this issue directly.

We do live in an "economic ecosystem" that requires a wide range of contributions, and the top level of attainment is especially valuable for innovation. The high ranking of some of Long Island's high schools, and the performance of their students, as demonstrated by the proportion of Intel scholars, is a great resource.

Third, forge closer integration of education and workforce development at every level. This means providing more short-term internships, extended cooperative educational experiences and apprenticeships for students, beginning in early high school and following through the college years. We know too well the demographics showing the discouraging exodus of the 25- to 34-year-old group from Long Island, signifying the loss of young adults with great creative potential. Experience in local businesses and industries helps to integrate students into the local economy and enables them to envision a future that can fulfill their desire to stay.

 

Long Island is rich in educational institutions, but if we're not adapting to changing times, emerging trends and economic needs, then we're falling behind. While Farmingdale's horticulture and landscape programs remain an important part of our agricultural legacy -- thanks to our recognition of their value and to a thriving and supportive industry on Long Island -- the college moved on to developing a diverse array of applied science and technology programs supporting the region's economic needs. Other colleges have done the same. But we aren't finished.

Change is perpetual, so let's enjoy the journey.

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