Summit on American Competitiveness

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Publication date: 
29 May 2008

The National Summit on American Competitiveness met May 22 in Chicago, Illinois to discuss topics ranging from entrepreneurship to free trade agreements. However, it was science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education that proved the common theme throughout the day.

This year’s event was the second in the Department of Commerce’s series on how best to promote innovation and economic development across the United States. The 2007 event, held in Washington, DC, focused on innovative partnerships, education and workforce issues, and energy independence. The Chicago Summit offered panels on how the business climate supports national competitiveness goals, the importance of entrepreneurship, how best to take advantage of free trade agreements, and strategies for the global marketplace.

Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez opened the Summit with comments on the state of the economy. Gutierrez allowed that it is a difficult time for the United States economy, but suggested that the real challenge lies in improving the nation’s level of competitiveness. The former chief executive officer of Kellogg Company insisted that “every major country in the world is trying to get into the game,” and that the question for America is how to stay competitive in the long haul. Gutierrez also emphasized the importance of business-led innovation, saying that innovation does not take place in Washington, DC.

Panel one, titled “Roadmap for the Next Decade,” was moderated by Maria Bartiromo of CNBC. Participants included Craig Barret, chairman of the board of Intel Corporation; Louis Gerstner, retired chairman and CEO of IBM; W. James McNerney, Jr., CEO of The Boeing Company; Michael Porter, professor at the Harvard Business School; and Deborah Wince-Smith, president of the Council on Competitiveness.

Panelists were prompted to discuss what is not being talked about in the public and political spheres. Education was the resounding answer. Gerstner stated that in a knowledge-based global economy, skills are what matter. Barret added that investments in research and development are too low, and that the K-12 education system needs attention.
Porter suggested that while the U.S. has been the main engine of growth for the world economy, prospects are dimming because of the education system, and the “epic amounts” of energy the U.S. wastes. Porter also lamented that the political debate is about incremental fixes, which he views as inadequate. Later, Porter explained that it was important to find a way to get students with skills into STEM studies in college. According to Porter, the K-12 experience does not convince students that STEM careers are attainable. He suggested that the decentralization of the American education system must change.

Wince-Smith said that there is virtually no productivity in schools, despite the fact that the U.S. spends more per student than all nations, but Switzerland. In discussing immigration policy, Wince-Smith suggested that the focus of immigration laws has been reuniting families, whereas the focus should be skills based.

Steven Chen, co-founder and chief technology officer of YouTube; John Koten, CEO of Mansueto Ventures LLC; Steven Odland, CEO of Office Depot; James Phillips, managing partner of Pinnacle Investments, LLC; and Beth Williams, CEO of Roxbury Technology Corporation headlined the second panel simply called “Entrepreneurship.” Ronald Gidwitz, former CEO of Helene Curtis, and moderator began by declaring that he would steer the second panel away from a discussion on education, because the previous panel had done such a thorough job.

Panelists mostly followed that direction, and discussed the importance of an entrepreneurial outlook in the business world. Koten began by stating that small business accounts for 80 percent of job growth, a statistic that was accepted by other panelists. Roxbury Technology Corporation’s CEO cited her own company in suggesting that entrepreneurial companies offer economic opportunities that help to alleviate social problems. When Chen was asked why he went to Silicon Valley to start YouTube, he responded that he felt engineers are looked down upon in the Midwest. At one point, panelists also discussed the merits of college classes on entrepreneurialism, and whether that characteristic could be taught. Williams opined that she felt an entrepreneurial spirit was innate. On the subject of colleges, Phillips suggested that R&D funding was too low, and that there needed to be better patent protection for professors given the “publish or perish” nature of academia.

After a lunch where Porter from the first panel received a Lifetime Achievement in Economic Development Award from the Secretary of Commerce, panel three convened on “Utilizing Free Trade Agreements.” Moderator John Engler, CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, led a discussion with Rick Goings, CEO of Tupperware Brands Corporation; Robert Lane, CEO of Deere & Company; James Owens, CEO of Caterpillar; and Matthew Slaughter, professor of international economics at Dartmouth College rounding out the panel.

Speakers criticized anti-free trade advocates and politicians who campaigned against the Columbia Free Trade Agreement. Engler, who predicted that violence because of economic disparity would factor hugely in the 21st century, said that candidates were elected in 2006 by running against ‘trade.’ Owens called economic isolationism a “tragic political mistake,” and said it was “disappointing how far our political rhetoric has drifted.” Slaughter argued that the U.S. tax rate for businesses and the complexity of the tax system put American businesses at a comparative disadvantage. The panel returned to a discussion on the importance of STEM education when the issue of “adjustments,” or job loss came up. Participants seemed to agree with a statement that appropriate policy programs needed to be in place to help those people who would be negatively impacted by free trade.

The final panel, titled “The 21st Century American Community” was moderated by Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Paulson, Jr.; Governor Haley Barbour (R-MS); Mayor Richard Daley; Mark Drabenstott, Director of the RUPRI Center for Regional Competitiveness at the University of Missouri-Columbia; Gov. Janet Napolitano (D-AZ); and Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC) participated.

The fourth panel began their discussion almost immediately on the subject of education. Paulson opened by saying that – looking forward – there are a wide range of issues confronting America in the 21st century; among others he listed education and job training. Daley suggested that Chicago was facing a serious shortage of specialized workers forcing employers to look outside the U.S. for new hires. As a remedy, Daley suggested a new focus on math and science education. Napolitano was the most vocal in her support for STEM education. Among other comments, Napolitano emphasized the importance of teacher training, STEM in K-12, technical skills, robotics competitions, and innovative learning strategies. When Napolitano commented that vocational education should be encouraged, Sanford exclaimed that too many think of tech education as a ticket to “second class citizenry.”

The Department of Commerce’s next major event, the second annual Americas Competitiveness Forum, will be held on August 17-19 in Atlanta, Georgia.

NOTE: The 2008 State STEM Education Report Card series is now available and These data sheets were compiled for the STEM Education Coalition ( and are “open source” documents.


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