Down To Business: IT Pros: Don't Count On The Government

There are simply no federally orchestrated "solutions" when customers ultimately are dictating the terms of global commerce.
Dan Rather, the defrocked former CBS Evening News anchor, recently called on President Obama to set up a special commission of the good and the great to make recommendations on how to save quality journalism in America--and by extension, journalism jobs and the industry itself. Calling a vibrant national press "an immediate national priority," Rather suggested government financial support and the establishment of not-for-profit foundations as possible alternative business models. As he sees it, the news business and the national interests it serves must transcend the pedestrian forces of commercial supply and demand.

I got to thinking about Rather's rather curious ideas (more government involvement in the news media to ensure that the government is kept in line?) when contemplating the future of the IT profession. Whenever I suggest that public policy can do only so much to slow or divert the global economic forces reshaping the tech industry and profession, readers respond that I'd be changing my tune if it were my job on the line. But as Rather's call to arms suggests, the news media and all related jobs are being turned upside down as much as the U.S. tech industry is. And in media as in tech, there are simply no government-orchestrated "solutions" when customers ultimately are dictating the terms of commerce. What's "fair" is what the market says is fair.

As much as many people would like to see domestic-content legislation, tax disincentives, or visa clampdowns to keep things as they were in the halcyon days, the global economy no longer abides such intervention. Employers, at least, have a way of routing around employer-averse policies, mainly by moving operations to where the climate is more favorable to them.

This isn't a judgment of what's right or wrong. It's simply what is. Suraj Prakesh, VP of global delivery for India-based Wipro, rightly notes that offshore outsourcing is considered an American boardroom success story, at least in the short term. However, the IT value chains of U.S.-based companies continue to be managed from the U.S., where much of the intellectual property still resides and much of the value is still added. If U.S. policy makers start telling those companies who they can hire and how they must function, they'll start relocating even the core of their operations elsewhere.

In a speech last week, Obama addressed the national competitiveness issue with the broadest of proposals: increasing investment in research, education, and Internet infrastructure; promoting competitive markets and entrepreneurship; and focusing on "national priorities" such as healthcare and clean energy technologies--all supported by more than $100 billion in Recovery Act funding. A hundred billion here, a hundred billion there...

More specific is Rochester Institute of Technology professor Ron Hira, who argues that U.S. policy makers must focus on the demand side of the U.S. tech labor market and not just supply. In a thought-provoking article in Issues In Science And Technology, Hira calls on the government to take the following steps toward preserving U.S. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) jobs: collect and share more detailed and timely data on the globalization of innovation and R&D; set up an independent institute to study the implications of that globalization on the U.S. economy; engage unions and other worker groups in the STEM policy discussion, not just employers; establish continuing education and training programs for displaced STEM workers oriented around "geographically sticky" skills; and require that public-sector procurement favor tech products developed in America.

As evidence of the supply vs. demand dichotomy, two different organizations issued press releases last week offering two very different pictures of the tech economy. The Computing Technology Industry Association declared "rising optimism for the economic state of the technology industry and the overall U.S. economy" based on its survey of more than 200 U.S.-based IT organizations, conducted in May. Meantime, TechAmerica Foundation released a report, based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, that shows that the U.S. high-tech industry shed 115,000 jobs between January and June.

Clearly, employers and workers need to get on the same page. I'm just not confident that the government will be instrumental in leading the U.S. tech industry to the promised land.

Rob Preston,
VP and Editor in Chief
[email protected]

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.