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BPO Journal

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Of the High-Tech Brain Drain: Love 'em or leave 'em

"It ain't where the puck is, it's where the puck will be." - Wayne Gretzky

Here are two complementary articles from the Wall Street Journal (gotta love the journal!) which point out that a U.S. education system that's not producing enough science and engineering talent and IT outsourcing are mutually reinforcing dimensions of the same coin.

The first article, High-Tech Brain Drain (May 5, 2005), reinforces the long-standing complaint of business leaders that the U.S. education system is not producing requisite science and engineering talent - we produce a little more than 5 engineering and natural science undergrad degrees, and rank sixth worldwide in the number of people graduating with bachelor degrees in engineering.To quote the journal, "...China is graduating some four times as many engineers as the U.S., and Japan -- with less than half of our population -- graduates twice as many engineers as we do...the percentage of incoming undergraduates planning to major in computer science declined by more than 60% between 2000 and 2004, and is now 70% below its peak in the early 1980s." The U.S. now ranks 17th world-wide in the number of undergraduate engineers and natural scientists it produces; that's down from 1975, when the U.S. was No. 3 (after Japan and Finland).

So, its only natural that American companies such as Microsoft, Intel set up research operations in India and China. Business leaders like Bill Gates make the argument that immigration curbs on the entry of foreign professionals and international students only serve to aggravate the problem further and take away significantly from the country's edge in innovation and its position as the world's technology leader. A few weeks ago, Mr. Gates said immigration policies are threatening U.S. competitiveness like never before. Asked how he would change current law, he replied, "I'd certainly get rid of the H1-B visa caps. That's one of the easiest decisions."

The second article, "Career Journal: Even Tech Execs Can't Get Kids To Be Engineers" (March 29, 2005) looks at the problem in reverse. It demonstrates that "some of the nation's tech elite -- including many immigrants who benefited greatly from engineering careers -- are finding even their own children shun engineering. One oft-cited reason: concern that dad and his contemporaries will ship such jobs overseas." Experts cite a variety of other reasons for the U.S.'s engineer shortage - poor math and science curricula in public schools and a persistent image problem - but the risk of career flight is an important factor that weighs into the decision.

Perhaps, when the widely cited benefits of outsourcing - higher productivity and organizational flexibility at reduced costs of ownership- become more apparent, it will allow firms to create more positions that speak for the lucre of a career in engineering. Until then, I declare myself confused. But, heck, to quote "The Leadership Advantage" (Warren Bennis), if you're not confused, you don't know what's going on.

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