The CEO of Bloomington-based State Farm Mutual Insurance sounded a call for education reform before an audience of 330 people Friday at a Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce-sponsored breakfast meeting at Four Points by Sheraton.
"Learning has never been so important," said Ed Rust, stressing the need to prepare young people for jobs in a global marketplace.
"The global economy is so different from when we were growing up," said Rust, who also serves as chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Illustrating his point about change, Rust displayed a photo of how mail used to be delivered within the State Farm office -- by a woman on roller skates.
"How the world has changed. Now mail may become a thing of the past," he said, referring to modern electronic delivery systems.
Pointing to changes on the manufacturing side, Rust, who sits on the Caterpillar Inc. board of trustees, said "the number of robots used will continue to soar."
"You'll have workers and robots working side by side and learning from one another," he said.
Having served as chairman of the Business-Higher Education Forum and the Business Roundtable's Education Initiative, Rust called for the business community to get involved in seeing that basic math and science skills are imparted to the nation's young people.
"(Students) need those basic skills to compete in the world," he said.
Citing "A Nation at Risk," a 1983 report that suggested that America was in danger of falling behind the rest of the world in the education of its youth, Rust said the problem was even more critical today.
"Thirty years later, our country is still at risk. There's an ever-widening skills gap," he said, pointing to an estimated 120,000 jobs going unfilled in central Illinois because of a lack of qualified applicants.
"Despite the fact there are 12 million unemployed people in this country, it's still hard for companies to find skilled workers."
On the positive side, Rust cited new educational efforts gaining traction such as the Khan Academy, an Internet effort that provides lessons on subjects such as math, science and history via YouTube.
More than 200 million lessons have been dispensed since Salman Khan started his online instruction in 2006.
Asked by an audience member what he would say to President Obama in a private meeting, Rust said it would be "not to cut business short and allow for competing views on various issues."
The challenge to the president is to find ways to remove "a fog of uncertainty" that U.S. business now faces, he said, referring to mounting taxes and federal regulations.
"Businesses crave as much certainty as they can get," said Rust, adding that he still enjoys spending time on his McLean County farm.
In introducing Rust, Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman noted that Rust was one of the few Caterpillar board members who actually owned and operated Caterpillar equipment.
Steve Tarter can be reached at 686-3260 or [email protected]. Follow his blog, Minding Business, on pjstar.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveTarter.
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