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DARPA worried there aren’t enough young geeks…

The U.S. Defence advanced research guys are worried that not enough young Americans are pursuing the sciences or engineering. They are looking for ways to encourage more young people to pursue degrees in these areas.

There is a problem here, and I can tell you exactly what it is. For years, the largest American employers of scientists and engineers have been pursuing a policy that clearly identifies technical skills as pure commodities. As commodities, they are trying to fill positions in these areas with the cheapest resources possible: that is, they are finding their geeks and scientists in India, China, Russia, and Brazil. The basic premise: they can get four or five guys with science degrees “over there” for the price of one in North America.

The big U.S. companies been doing this for a decade. The numbers are staggering: millions of technical jobs have gone “off shore” since the late 90’s. North American technologists wanting a continued career are increasingly being forced to lead a team, manage projects, provide “business analysis” services, or consult. None of these roles really require a technical degree, and they certainly don’t emphasize geek skills.

As a young person just going in to university/college, it isn’t very hard to see the trends. If you want a job in North America, you want business skills: a B.Comm, an MBA, or similar. Oh sure, you might pick up a science degree as well, but you’d be best off eliminating any geek-like tendencies from your personality early on. If you truly like programming, there is some hungry guy in China with a PhD who’ll do it for what would be starvation wages here: and the vast majority of Canadian and U.S. companies are more than willing to hire him rather than you.

The long term result of this “offshoring” of originality and creativity is, to me at least, obvious. In several decades, the United States will no longer be a significant innovator, creator or manufacturer. All of the skills necessary to do these things will exist somewhere else. The U.S. will be a nation of managers, with no one to manage: and I’m pretty sure that the Chinese and Indians can figure out how to manage people pretty well.

I hope I’m wrong. But my guess is that the trend is irreversible- as long as sending skilled technical work elsewhere is cheaper, companies will continue doing it regardless of the consequences. The one hopeful factor is that salaries in “developing” nations are gradually catching up. Maybe it will become less appealing to send a job overseas when it costs nearly as much as it does here. Time will tell…

2 comments to DARPA worried there aren’t enough young geeks…

  • Shane

    Yeah it is sad to see, it has been happening with manufacturing jobs in Canada and the U.S. for decades now, I guess the next logical step after all of the manufacturing jobs are sent away, is to start working on the “technical” jobs.

    I start to wonder, what people will actually “do” for work down the road, besides say pizza delivery or fry chef. Which by the way, I am not saying are demeaning jobs, but it is tough to pay a mortgage on those wages.

    Globalization, good yes, we get cheaper iPODS and Plasma TV’s, bad because no one here at home makes anything anymore.

  • You make a good point, Shane: we consumers are as much to blame as anyone. We want the cheapest goods, and if you put something made in Canada or the U.S. next to something made in China or India, the “local” product will almost always be more expensive. We have Walmart-ed our industries to death.

    My theory is that the only jobs of the future will be service jobs that more or less demand local work. Doctors? You can’t practically ship yourself piecemeal to another country, so doctors will be needed. Lawyers? You need to try your case in a local court, so those guys will have jobs. Midwives, dentists, optometrists: yes, yes, yes. Street cleaners, plumbers, electricians, painters, interior decorators, physiotherapists… can’t offshore those jobs. Same thing with auto mechanics: they can make the cars elsewhere, but you aren’t going to ship it away for several months for servicing.

    Generally, repair and maintenance work means work that stays local. Manufacturing/production/creation, that will go somewhere else. When I started puttering with antique clocks, it occurred to me that here was a job that you can’t really outsource: it is far too time consuming, and hundred year old plus clocks don’t take kindly to shipping back and forth. Its a niche market- you can buy a decent throw-away clock for $20, so antiques are a luxury. But that’s another type of work that will stick around.

    None of these jobs, with the exception of doctors and lawyers, pay very well. But as work increasingly disappears here, we’ll consume less. The new economies will catch up, and eventually (sometime after you and I are dead) the Chinese will be the consumers, and we’ll be the manufacturers again because labour will be so cheap here.

    What I’m really waiting for (and it will probably never come- but I can hope) is the day that someone realizes managers and corporate execs don’t do anything that someone in India or China couldn’t do cheaper and just as well. I think that would be a fine, fine day.

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