As part of our ongoing Innovation Mandate coverage, which we kick off with our cover story package this issue, we surveyed readers about the factors preventing the U.S. from growing as a global IT leader and innovator. Two cultural issues rose to the top: Readers worry about a societal culture that emphasizes other high-paying professions over IT (24% of survey respondents cited it among this country's top three IT leadership obstacles); and a corporate culture where tech workers no longer are "hungry" enough to out-innovate competitors based abroad (21%).
In other words, some view the current and emerging U.S. workforce as complacent when it comes to IT innovation, especially compared with the rising workforces in India, China, and a handful of other countries.
Jerry Kennelly, CEO of WAN optimization market leader Riverbed Technology, sees a "toxic culture" among young Americans. They're more concerned about hanging with the group, he says, than studying hard and making something of themselves. "The kids I know don't want to be an engineer," Kennelly says. "They don't even go to church--pro football is the substitute for religion."
Patrick Byrne, CEO of online retailer Overstock.com, is also outspoken on the subject. "After World War II, we ran the tables on the rest of the world for 50 years," Byrne says. "We just came to think that God is in heaven above, America is No. 1, and that's just the way it's supposed to be. We don't seem to grasp the significance, as a society, of what it means to have our kids coming out of high school educated to be 25th out of 30 industrialized countries. That should be sending up flares all over the country."
Rankings of students' math and science abilities generally put American kids somewhere in the middle of the pack internationally. For example, in its most recent (2007) assessment, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study ranked U.S. fourth-graders 11th out of 36 countries in math and only slightly above average in science. American eighth-graders fared slightly better.
The TIMSS report found that those students who placed a higher value on math and science as important to their future success also showed higher achievement. That conclusion, while seemingly obvious, reinforces the fact that if technical learning and career paths are considered unimportant, uncool, or a dead end, kids will gravitate elsewhere--to steady and lucrative areas like law and finance--even as technology companies continue to produce some of the wealthiest people on the planet.
I'm not convinced that the U.S., especially its young people, has lost its appetite and aptitude for technological innovation. While slackers abound, as they have forever, the kids I see today have a lot more on the ball than the kids of my day. They care more about their studies. They're more intellectually curious. They're more competitive. They volunteer more. Whether they choose a technology career is less a function of their smarts and work ethic and more about whether they see vibrant opportunities in that field. If they're not becoming engineers, scientists, and programmers, it's because they're looking ahead and not seeing the payoff.
It's critical that we show them the payoff, through our hiring, training, career development, and other business practices. The alternative, absent more open immigration and visa policies, is a second-rate economy where technology innovation becomes more of an exception rather than the rule.