By Marty Nemko
US’s News’s March 27 cover story, Can America Keep Up,? warns us that many Americans are fiddling while Rome is burning: “Nicholas Donofrio, IBM's No. 2 executive, told a gathering of colleagues and clients earlier this month. ‘We have no right to the standard of living we have. It can disappear as fast as it came.” Roy Singham, CEO of Thoughtworks, an international software consultancy added, "When you're in college drinking beer and watching the Super Bowl, your counterpart in China is on his fourth book."
Many Americans delude themselves into thinking that, somehow, America will always be #1: “Yeah, China can replicate, but they can’t innovate.” “Our system of higher education is the best in the world.” “Despite the hand wringing about offshoring, our employment rate is less than 5%.”
Those people are fooling themselves:
-- We have only started to see the impact of offshoring. A U.C. Berkeley report projects that 14 million U.S. jobs (disproportionately well-paying ones) could be shipped overseas.
-- Offshoring started with low-level work such as manufacturing and back-office recordkeeping. Then it moved into the midrange: for example, programming, technical support, and accounting. Now, offshoring is extending even higher. For example, a study presented last month to the National Academies, the nation’s leading advisory groups on science and technology, indicates that “more and more research work at corporations will be sent to fast-growing economics with strong education systems like China and India.”
-- Even entrepreneurship, long considered the U.S.'s trump card is vulnerable. A New York Times article (March 19), “Is the next Silicon Valley Taking Root in Bangalore?” reports on the growing number of high-tech startups in that country.
-- We may continue to mouth mantras about our system of higher education being the best in the world, but report after report reveals that colleges are turning out frighteningly ill-educated students. For example, the New York Times (Feb. 26) reported that the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that fewer than 1/3 of college graduates—down from 40 percent a decade ago--were deemed “proficient” in literacy. (emphasis mine.) One can only imagine if the students had been tested in science and technology.
Ironically, pundits may be pushing us in the wrong directions. We keep hearing a nonstop drumbeat from leaders urging the U.S. to turn out more engineers. For example, former astronaut, Sally Ride in a USA Today article (Mar. 19) exhorts more girls to consider engineering. She cites the fact that in 2004, China and India graduated 700,000 engineers while the U.S. graduated only 70,000. So what? Already, American employers are finding that the engineers that U.S. colleges turn out are often inferior (not to mention more expensive) than those they can hire in India. The aforementioned US News article cites General Electric’s Vice Chair David Calhoun: "When we have to look for deep technical talent, not just 10 or 20 people--especially in high technology--the places you can go and know you can hire somebody every day are India and China…Half of IBM's 190,000 engineers and technical experts now reside overseas, for instance. And while Big Blue is still hiring modestly in the United States, it has 30,000 Indians on its payroll and plans to add thousands more.”
If we dig deeper into the pool, can anyone honestly think we’ll get better engineers? And even if we do a better job of educating engineers so we have as many competent engineers as does India and China (highly improbable given the size and culture of their populations), our engineers will still cost much more. Of course, some engineering jobs will remain in the U.S. but certainly not enough to justify our national obsession with encouraging more students to pursue engineering.
I cannot be optimistic about America’s ability to retain its world economic preeminence. This, I believe, is China’s and India’s century. Fewer Americans will have well-paying jobs. The aforementioned US News article reports, “Calhoun and other American executives stress that they see the United States as a massive ship that is slowly losing its steam.” Pursue these careers and you're more likely to stay afloat:
Managers and Executives especially those able to manage projects with remote employees, especially those in Asia and Latin America.
Protective Services Occupations: correctional officers, firefighting, police and detectives, private detectives and investigators.
Sales. Some of the best sales jobs will be in financial services, health care products, and in selling into China and India
Government jobs. Wide-scale offshoring of government jobs would be political suicide.
Health care. Most direct health care and hospital administration jobs can’t be offshored.
Technicians. Installing, servicing, and repairing large machines such as printing presses, robotic welders, and MRI machines.
Food service: servers, chefs, managers.
Construction trades: for example, electrician, plumber, crane operator, heating/ventilation/air conditioning speclalist.
Entertainment. Performers, directors, producers and technical staff.
For more information on the above careers, see www.bls.gov/oco.
Well-above-average employees in nearly all fields. Even in offshore-prone fields, some jobs will remain in the U.S. but will go primarily to those who are exceptionally capable, hardworking, or extraordinary networkers.
In coming years, people incapable or unwilling to pursue the above careers will likely have to accept a lower standard of living. That’s not all bad. Research shows that beyond a bare middle class income, additional earnings don’t increase happiness. Perhaps finding contentment from a family evening discussing politics rather than a $200 outing to a sporting event, living in a cozy apartment instead of a fancy home, driving an old yet reliable Toyota Corolla instead of a new gas-guzzling, breakdown-prone American SUV, is a small price to pay for the freedom to pursue the career of your choice and having enough time to watch March Madness.
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