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Building NY’s “Innovation Economy” Begins With Career Skills Development

By Brian M. Kolb


Willingness to learn. Working well independently and as part of a team. Creative thinking. Effective writing, math, and problem-solving skills. Possessing a positive attitude and standing out. According to career consultant, columnist, and author Andrea Kay, these are the necessary skills that companies, large and small, most desire in their employees.


Highly skilled workers always in demand

Having worked in the private sector as president of Refractron Technologies, and as a co-founder of the North American Filter Corporation, I know that whether they are enjoying an economic boom, or weathering an economic bust, employers have a constant need for highly skilled and highly motivated team members. Everything from excellent written and verbal communication to analytical problem-solving skills are important for anyone looking not only to keep their job, but also to grow and get ahead in this ultra-competitive economy. 


Building the “innovation economy” will create more jobs

The attributes listed above are more than just career-survival skills; they are the fundamental building blocks of what I like to call New York’s “innovation economy.” By innovation economy, I am referring to a new approach, a new way of thinking about how we view and do business in New York State. An innovation economy will empower New Yorkers to start a business, grow a business, and develop the real-world skill set they need to succeed in their chosen career, whether working as a teacher, computer technician, auto mechanic, or carpenter. More importantly, an innovation economy will empower the more than 700,000 New Yorkers who are out of work to not only find a job, but also develop a rewarding career. 

The innovation economy is:

- Pro-growth, pro-entrepreneur, and rewards risk-takers;

- Focused on growing small businesses and entrepreneurial start-ups;

- Emphasizes lifetime learning;

- Values vocational training, places a premium on continued skills development; and,

- Seeks to transform government from a command-and-control bureaucratic obstacle into a productive partner that actually helps job creators achieve their goals.

Much like its name implies, innovation  — the introduction of something new; be it a new method or a new way of thinking — is at the heart of the innovation economy. Building this innovation economy starts with education and involves new approaches to thinking about what we learn, and most importantly how we learn and how we apply that learning.


Core competencies to preserve America’s innovation edge 

In a recent Forbes article (“Creating Innovators: Why America’s Education System Is Obsolete,” by Erica Swallow), Harvard Innovation Education Fellow Tony Wagner offered his perspective on maintaining America’s innovation edge based on two years of research and extensive interviews with recent college graduates, professors, as well as private and public-sector leaders. Wagner recommended transitioning from the current approach of filling children with knowledge through rote memorization of things like state capitals, and moving toward a new approach focused on motivating students and developing their innovation skills. 

To accomplish this, Wagner advocates a new education model that, recognizing the availability of and ease of access to information (via the Internet and ubiquitous smart phones), instead focuses on increasing the “skill and will” of students to think creatively and solve problems efficiently. Wagner outlined a set of core educational competencies that every student should have mastered prior to high-school graduation in order to continue our culture of innovation including critical thinking and problem solving; initiative and entrepreneurialism; accessing and analyzing information, and developing curiosity and imagination.


My smart solutions to build the innovation economy

New York’s schools and teachers are some of the best in the nation. Yet, as good as they are, I want them to be even better, so after establishing a strong base of the three “Rs” they develop the core innovation competencies Wagner outlined. My smart solutions include restructuring the State Board of Regents so it is accountable to the governor, and not New York’s educational bureaucracy. The state also needs to ensure that state-education aid increases go to high-needs districts and that all funding goes directly to the classroom and not administration. Promoting vocational skills — they should be renamed career skills — development so New York has the next generation of high-skilled electricians, carpenters, machinists, engineers, computer programmers, and automotive technicians is equally important. Students should know these careers are just as important — and, in some cases, more lucrative — than a traditional two or four-year college path.

Fostering innovation, teaching children the basics, instructing them in applying their education, promoting lifetime learning and skills development — these educational cornerstones are the foundations for building New York’s innovation economy.        


Brian M. Kolb (R,I,C–Canandaigua) is the New York Assembly Minority Leader and represents the 129th Assembly District, which encompasses parts of Ontario, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Cortland counties, and all of Seneca County. Contact him at (315) 781-2030 or

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