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Skills gap is the cause of USA employment problems

Posted on August 30, 2011
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Charles Campbell, former senior vice-president of the Gulf Oil Corporation says in his letter to the editor (“Free trade destroying the American economy,” Aug 23 ) that the American economy is languishing because jobs meant for the American people are now in Bangalore, India, at Infosys, Wipro and Tata, and in China, at Foxconn, an electronics manufacturing giant. His is a myopic rant that doesn’t take into account the skills gap that is part of the picture in this country. Although this gap, a global mismatch of talent to jobs available, India and China, it is already here. We don’t have enough STEM workers, those well versed in science, technology, engineering and math, the knowledge areas vital for the manufacturing, repair, sales, upkeep and innovation of the products necessary to drive our cutting edge way of life, maintenance of our infrastructure, our quest for alternative energy and our aspirations for green industries.

Eric Spiegel, the American CEO of Siemens Corporation, has appeared on several news programs to say that there are at least 3,200 jobs his company has been unable to fill because suitable workers cannot be found despite a vigorous recruitment program. This is not so in Germany, where students, right out of high school, are trained as apprentices, even as they attend regular classes, to prepare for the global economy.

We have regressive tax rules that don’t favor investment in training and development. We need 22 million college graduates by 2018 and we will graduate only 19 million students, several taking 6 years or more to leave college. High school and college drop out rates are much worse in minority communities, among whom science, engineering and technology are not favored subjects.

In developing economies, far more students are far more serious than in the U.S. They have a do or die attitude, tying their entire survival to their education and their skills. They choose difficult subjects to master and they pursue their dreams until success is achieved. Education is also subsidized by government or free in these places. In contrast American education is costly and does not deliver the bang for the bucks spent. A lot of American students attend college to play and party rather than to learn. Excessive use of alcohol and pot dims their minds and dulls their scholastic records and ambitions. Attendance itself is not compulsory. Professors are hands off and distant. Many students cheat while enrolled in expensive universities that are oblivious to their lack of progress and preparation for our economic needs. Add to this toxic brew our aging population, it is clear that catastrophe looms.

What Mr. Campbell doesn’t mention is that global corporations are happy to set up shop in America. Infosys workers come to the US on deputations from India and American workers go to Bangalore for cross cultural learning. Many Indian and Chinese corporations, eager to understand how to navigate the American legal system, are employing US law school graduates who are finding it near impossible to land jobs at American corporations. Our college students are all over the world, teaching English, working in foreign universities and schools and doing stints in non profits involved in development and aid. Those less parochial will see there is movement both ways.

It could be argued that our skills gap itself is a result of a massive jobs transfer to developing economies by American corporations, greedy for profits and cheap labor, the maxim being, “What you don’t use, you lose”. But when a global corporation like Siemens, with headquarters in Germany, says that it wants its US division to take off but cannot find enough workers, that means we are not merely plagued by a skills atrophy, we also suffer because our education system is not providing the fundamental sought after engineering and math skills from the outset.

There is a raucous but ignorant faction in America that would like to see the H1B visa program abrogated. But this group may not be aware that while foreign born workers make up only 8 percent of our labor market, they are responsible for more than 50 percent of the patent applications put forward by American corporations. IBM’sDharmendra Modha, an award winning, Indian born scientist, educated in IIT, Mumbai, was the project leader of IBM’s “brain chip” with capacity to simulate the human brain. He is but one example of imported scientists who are enriching the American technology scene. Why should IBM not tap this man’s genius? I am sure IBM looked long and hard before they hired Mr. Modha and I am sure he competed with several American born applicants to bag his coveted position.

Sure, free trade is a Darwinian process but in a couple of decades the globe’s entire work force, including the ones in India and China, will be affected. Those with contempt for hard work and education, those unprepared for change and novel ideas and those who refuse to train in unfamiliar skills are all in jeopardy. Corporate greed is only part of the story.

Usha Nellore,0,5726810.story

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