Can America compete without Steve Jobs?

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At first glance, the question that serves as the title of this post might sound a tad ridiculous. After all, Steve Jobs, no matter how talented, was just one man in charge of one company in a $14.6 trillion economy. How can the unfortunate departure of a single individual spell disaster for an entire economy?

Well, it can’t of course. But at the same time, Steve Jobs was more than just a businessman. He was a symbol of America’s continued global economic dominance, and a model of how the U.S. can maintain that dominance. Here’s what I mean:

I know that all of us Americans are feeling quite despondent right now about the country’s economic future. We just can’t seem to extricate ourselves from the fallout from the housing bust and 2008 financial crisis. Jobs are still hard to find. Our political leaders are too busy bickering and posturing to do much about it. The U.S. lost its top credit rating as the finances of the nation deteriorate. And meanwhile, up-and-coming superpowers like China and India seem to be chasing us down from behind. All in all, the picture looks gloomy, from any angle.

But then there’s Steve Jobs and Apple. The firm shows off the key advantage the U.S. still holds over the rest of the world – its leadership in innovation. Apple thrives because it produces creative, well-designed, technologically advanced products that the world wants, and that the world is willing to pay a premium to get. Simply put, Steve Jobs pointed the way forward for the entire American economy. He showed how the U.S. can compete with anybody, anywhere.

As proof, just look at what Apple has achieved in America’s top economic rival: China. Apple’s sales in Greater China (which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan) surged more than six times in its fiscal third quarter compared to the same period a year earlier, topping even homegrown favorite Lenovo. So far this fiscal year, Apple has sold $8.8 billion of stuff in the China region. Apple shows how U.S. companies can continue to expand and attract new customers in emerging economies with products that they can’t get from local companies.

OK, so at this point you’re probably asking – what does that mean for me? Not everyone can work for Apple. (The company employs some 47,000 people full time.) Nor does everyone have the high-tech know-how to succeed at a company like Apple. The lower skilled manufacturing jobs Apple could create have been shipped overseas. Its popular iPads and iPhones are made in China by Chinese workers.

All true. But at the same time, Apple is capturing the vast majority of the value of its products, even though it outsources their actual production. Chinese workers account for a mere 3.6% of the cost of making an iPhone, for example. The rest of the money goes to Apple’s suppliers in the U.S. and elsewhere, and to Apple itself in the form of a hefty profit. That means Apple is creating wealth, for its shareholders, employees, suppliers and the nation overall.

What Steve Jobs shows, then, is the importance of creating more businessmen like Steve Jobs. America’s future will depend on the country’s ability to generate and support creative entrepreneurship and new technologies. That means ensuring a stable, well-functioning financial system so small businessmen and start-ups can get access to capital. And most of all, it points to the need for greater investment in education to train the Steve Jobses of the future. Not everything can be competitively manufactured by American workers. So education and job training is crucial to improving the skill set of those workers, so they can find employment at firms like Apple, even without the factories next door.

The need for a better-trained workforce holds true for those American companies that manufacture in the U.S. as well. There are still a lot of Apple-like firms with creative management that have kept factories running in the U.S. Contrary to what many believe, the U.S. is still a huge manufacturing power, accounting for a fifth of total global industrial output – a share that has stayed relatively stable. Most of those products, like Apple’s are also high-end, demanding an advanced level of engineering and specially trained staff to make them – like Boeing’s Dreamliner or GM’s Volt. An emphasis on education is crucial for maintaining America’s edge in manufacturing as well.

So despite the recent downturn, American companies still innovate, market and brand better than any others in the world, thanks to visionary entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs. Keeping that edge will determine America’s economic future, since China, India and other emerging economies are desperately trying to create their own Steve Jobses. In the end, then, the answer to the original question, the American economy can’t compete without Steve Jobs, or at least a lot of other businessmen just like him.