Tom Friedman of The New York Times parachuted into the Silicon Valley recently. That was encouraging, since the East Coast media rarely visit, even though round-trip airfare on Jet Blue is $300. Friedman is quite taken with the offshoring thing-and that's good, because no matter where you sit on the matter, it's one of the biggest political issues of this election year. He did a meet-and-greet with Intel's Craig Barrett , who has his own axes to grind, but the conversation illuminated an aspect of the offshoring controversy that has gotten short shrift: education.
Clearly, jobs are moving offshore. It's an emotional issue, but it's been overblown. Daniel Drezner, assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago, writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine that the job loss numbers being bandied about are gross, not net. "The Forrester prediction of 3.3 million lost jobs, for example, is spread across 15 years," he writes. "That would mean 220,000 jobs displaced per year by offshore outsourcing-a number that sounds impressive until one considers that total employment in the United States is roughly 130 million, and that about 22 million new jobs are expected to be added between now and 2010. Annually, outsourcing would affect less than 0.2 percent of employed Americans."
With Barrett, Friedman delved into something we've written about over the years: the lack of home-grown engineering talent. A large number of the engineering students in this country are foreign-born. Many stay and work in the United States and ultimately become citizens. Many head home after some real-world work and start their own businesses.
I've written about the assertion by the Hoover Institution's Henry Rowen that the top of the food chain is innovation. (See the archived stories from our Globalization of Electronics issue at eet.com/special/special_issues/2004/global_2004.html). The best way to ensure that innovation keeps happening here is to foster a culture that rewards and honors scientifically inclined kids rather than one that regards them as oddities.
We can expend a lot of energy on the offshoring debate and put up barriers to trade that ultimately cost us money and time. Or we can spend that energy and money on seed corn: the kids around us. It's a task in which parents, engineers, educators, and industry and community leaders all have a role and a stake.