Homeland Security official warns U.S. workforce faces skills 'crisis'

Science and technology undersecretary Jay Cohen warns of lack of math and science competitiveness.

The Homeland Security Department's top technology official warned Monday that the U.S. workforce is "in crisis" due to students fleeing math and science fields because they are viewed as too difficult and the payoff too distant.

Unless this generation is energized, the nation will lack a "first-world economy" two decades from now, science and technology undersecretary Jay Cohen said.

Cohen, who assumed his Homeland Security job in August 2006, aired his warnings at a University of Maryland global security summit, underscoring similar recent comments by House Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., and Congressional Research and Development Caucus co-chairmen Reps. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., and Rush Holt, D-N.J.

On Friday, Biggert and 10 other lawmakers sent the most recent in a series of letters to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, requesting that they recoup some of the U.S. competitiveness funds slashed in the fiscal 2008 omnibus appropriations package.

The letter, which asked for more money for Energy Department basic research projects, was also sent to House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wisc., and ranking member Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.

The U.S. business community is partly to blame for the dearth of science, math, engineering and technology scholars, Cohen said, because private-sector commitment to R&D must be consistent regardless of which administration is in power. "We don't have the leadership in industry to make the sustained investment in basic and applied research because of [falling] monthly and quarterly returns," he said.

Cohen said recruiting a top-notch workforce is part of his plan to improve the performance and morale of his directorate, which had an $830 million budget in fiscal 2008 and has been highly criticized by Congress and policy watchdogs since its creation. Cohen restructured the directorate soon after his confirmation, and the components in his jurisdiction now rank among Homeland Security's highest performing, he said. Cohen called his department, which combined 22 disparate agencies and offices, "an incredible experiment in nuclear fusion" as he and other agency leaders try to find the best ways to work with state, local and tribal governments and emergency first-responders.

On the international front, Cohen said he has helped forge homeland security partnerships with Australia, Canada, Israel, Mexico, Sweden, Singapore and the United Kingdom, while Homeland Security officials are currently working on agreements with France, Holland and New Zealand. The U.S. government is close to signing a deal with the European Union, which has pledged 1.3 billion euros for security-related projects, many of which involve the development of new technologies.

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