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Down To Business: Job 1 For The U.S. Economy: Build A Tech Workforce

That's the unanimous answer from five industry CEOs. Are they on the mark, or just motivated by self-interest?

What's the single biggest economic challenge facing the United States today? I posed that question to five technology industry CEOs in separate interviews at last week's Interop trade show. Their answers were surprising only in their consistency. All five said the biggest obstacle to our continued economic prosperity is our ability to produce enough skilled workers to meet the tech demands of the coming decades. Cisco's John Chambers, Avaya's Donald Peterson, Internet Security Systems' Thomas Noonan, Riverbed's Jerry Kennelly, and Silver Peak's Rick Tinsley worry that inadequate schooling, demographic trends, politically correct immigration policies, and American society's underappreciation of the hard sciences will force U.S. companies to fan out abroad--far more than they do today--to find the tech talent they need. That may sound like posturing in order to create a more abundant--and cheap--labor supply for their companies, but they cite plenty of evidence to back up their concerns. Chambers, who wants to see American kids in kindergarten through third grade get a better grounding in math and science, notes that by the time they reach their teens they consistently score near the bottom in those subjects in tests among the industrialized countries. For example, in the most recent OECD tests of math and science skills of 15-year-olds, the United States ranked 28th and 22nd, respectively, out of 40 countries. In problem-solving skills, American students ranked 29th. Finland, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan were among the leaders in all three categories. If we don't fix the primary education system in this country--reward the best teachers with higher pay, improve school infrastructure and teaching methods--"we'll leave behind 40% to 50% of our children," Chambers maintains. Noonan, the ISS chief, is ready to go radical: Privatize the entire U.S. education system to make teachers and administrators more competitive and accountable. Meantime, developing countries are priming their tech workforces. Noonan says he recently spoke to an audience of 700 information security doctoral and master's degree candidates at Beijing University. By comparison, he says, the entire United States has only about 250 such candidates. "When you're putting that kind of horsepower against problems, stuff will happen," says Noonan, who notes that China has more English speakers than the United States. Kennelly, the Riverbed CEO, notes that technical innovation drives productivity gains, which in any country is the source of wealth creation. Therefore, if U.S. companies don't have ready access to that ingenuity, the domestic economy will stagnate. Another key source of wealth, population growth, is near stagnant in the industrialized world, so Kennelly rails against policies that keep bright foreign managers, inventors, engineers, programmers, and other professionals from emigrating to and working in the United States. "Countries losing their people to other countries should be complaining," he says, "not the other way around." Silver Peak's Tinsley sees a deeper cultural weakness: From the baby boomers to the current generation, technical education has been viewed as less and less important. Many a reader will argue that fewer American students are gravitating to the hard sciences because they see U.S. companies exporting those related jobs. But with U.S. tech employment and salaries at all-time highs, it's clear that this isn't a zero-sum game. What's your take? Should we be worrying more about $70-a-barrel oil, our underfunded Social Security system, our mounting national debt, or some other pressing economic challenge than about giving these fat cat CEOs their pick of a plentiful labor litter? Or is this country in for bigger trouble if we don't pay more attention to the tech workforce of the future?

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