CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Sen. Jay Rockefeller visited a shining West Virginia success -- the Toyota plant in Putnam County -- he and Toyota leaders spotlighted a disturbing problem: the lack of workers with enough science and math skills to hold jobs in the high-tech automotive factory.
West Virginia students lag slightly behind the U.S. average in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) scores -- and America lags sadly behind most advanced democracies.
Two years ago, an international study ranked American 15-year-olds at 25th in math and 21st in science, compared to their counterparts in other modern nations. In response, President Obama launched an industry-backed effort called Change the Equation, designed to help America catch up in crucial STEM abilities. Congress also passed an America Competes Act to boost tech education.
Rockefeller and Toyota officials pointed out that Japanese high schools provide far more high-tech learning than U.S. schools do. The officials worry that West Virginia's work force won't contain enough science-savvy young people to staff the Putnam plant.
"When the Baby Boomers retire, there's going to be nobody filling the positions," Toyota Vice President Terry Arthur said.
The prosperity of every advanced country -- and the prosperity of individual families -- depends on knowledge and skills. It will be dismal if West Virginia and America fall behind in the brainpower needed for success. It would be disheartening if Toyota someday must import Japanese workers to operate its Putnam works.
Two other factors impair young West Virginians: drug addiction and dropping out of high school. Luckily, the state's graduation rate rose from 74.2 percent in 2002 to 77 percent in 2009, according to America's Promise, the youth advocacy group created by Colin Powell. It said the number of West Virginia "dropout factories," high schools with pathetic rates, fell from six to three.
Still, these figures mean that one-fourth of young West Virginians quit school -- dooming their chance to work in modern careers such as those at Toyota.
America's competitiveness in the global economy depends on training plenty of bright young people for high-tech jobs. We hope West Virginia leaders do their utmost to support various initiatives to improve STEM skills.