Lately, pundits and commentators have warned that America’s place in the renewable energy market has begun to slip, in part because fewer students are pursuing degrees in the hard sciences and engineering.
How can we ever be a solar powerhouse without fresh ideas and students? Meanwhile, utilities, energy conglomerates and the nuclear industry all face the problem of mass retirement. President Obama and Energy Secretary Steve Chu have raised the issue several times. Obama even recently taped an episode of MythBusters on solar.
The bad news is that it’s true. The even worse news is that it is part of a long-term trend that shows no sign of reversing. At the beginning of the decade, IT executives like Seagate CEO Bill Watkins (now CEO of LED maker Bridgelux), Intel illuminatus Andy Grove and National Semiconductor’s Brian Halla all warned about how the decline in the numbers of technical graduates had begun to reduce American competitiveness.
Increasingly tough immigration laws have made the problem even more difficult. Most highly ranked graduate programs in the U.S. rely heavily on foreign students. Unfortunately, these days, many have difficulty getting green cards to stay in the U.S. after graduation. In some years, the majority of those earning master's degrees at U.S. universities in some subjects like electrical engineering have had no choice but to go home. Countries such as Israel, Taiwan and even China have begun to mimic the lab-to-company concept pioneered by Silicon Valley, which is prompting even more to stay home.
How do we cure it? Often, you hear that you have to make science and technology more engaging for kids, particularly in the early grades. Create positive role models in technology. Make it seem interesting and exciting.
But I’ve got a more surefire solution:
Pay them more.
Yes, pay engineers and technical graduates more than they get now -- put them on par with marketing and/or sales staff -- and create a career track so they can stay on the bench.
Money is really the root problem here. When a math or science major graduates from MIT, Rice or U.C. Berkeley these days, they face a choice: take a research position in a company and pursue their heart's desire or make five times as much toiling as a Wall Street flunky.
They aren’t taking that Goldman Sachs job just because there wasn’t a Cosby Show about engineers.
And even if they do pursue the research track, they will butt up against an uncomfortable truth a few years later. Namely, in order to advance, they will need to get an MBA and become a master of management sciences. And, of course, once they complete their MBA, the greater odds are that they will join a consulting firm like Bain & Co. where they will charge hundreds of dollars an hour to tell people that what America needs is better technical education.
How pervasive is this mindset in corporations? Former Intel CEO Craig Barrett allegedly once said “The half-life of an engineer, software or hardware, is only a few years.”
The real shocker here is that Barrett is probably the single most sincere tech exec when it comes to boosting national competitiveness.through science and education. He taught at Stanford and wrote a seminal textbook on semiconductors. He championed education at Intel. A lifelong Republican, he’s working with the current administration to reverse the trend of intellectual decline.
For some unfathomable reason, America places a high social premium on white-collar services, and the more abstract those services are, the better. The farther you can get away from actually doing anything constructive, the more highly you are regarded and rewarded. When I worked as a lawyer, litigators were respected for never getting to trial. Being forced to go to try a case in court was somehow seen as being akin to manual labor. Medicine has seen a similar decline. My brother became a surgeon. He was intrigued by the intricate nature of the human body. Plus, a surgeon friend of the family had a convertible Mercedes and a really hot wife. Now, med graduates worry about being Kaiser fodder.
The same occurs in Japan. Companies lament the decline of its flagship national brands. Where is the talent going? Finance and sales, most execs tell me.
China, India and South Korea, meanwhile, continue to rise because engineering represents a path to middle- and even upper-middle class respectability.
I do not mean to put engineers on a pedestal. Believe me, I know way too many to do that. (I passed physics, therefore I think I know everything: it's the engineer's fatal flaw.) But companies -- if they want to stay competitive and remain based in this country -- need to pay them more.
“The job market has worsened for young workers in S&E fields relative to many other high-level occupations, which discourages U.S. students from going on in S&E, but which still has sufficient rewards to attract large immigrant flows, particularly from developing countries,” Harvard economist Richard Freedman wrote in a 2005 report.
That said, let’s not lose track of unique U.S. strengths, such as shameless marketing and a great ability to glad-hand. We lead the world in coming up with crazy video websites, social networks and blogs: others merely follow. It’s no coincidence that the world’s first mass-produced electric sports car came from the good ol’ USA. LEDs? I guarantee some of the early success will go to U.S. companies working on lamps for the adult entertainment industry and “hydroponic urban farmers.”
We know our customers. But to keep the competitive edge, we’ve got to share more of the rewards with the men and women in the lab.