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House S&T Committee Explores Globalization and the US High-Tech Workforce

How is globalization affecting US high-tech workers? What steps should the government take to ensure sufficient jobs and a robust high-tech workforce in the future?  What are the roles of community colleges and industry in producing highly-skilled employees for technical and manufacturing jobs? The House Science and Technology Committee addressed these issues in two recent hearings. 

Witnesses at the first hearing indicated that not enough is yet known about the consequences of offshoring high-tech jobs. They were united in opposition to protectionist policies, arguing that the US instead should take actions to support a flexible and creative environment for innovation. The second hearing highlighted the fact that many highly-skilled manufacturing jobs are still available in the US, but employers face difficulties finding qualified people to fill them and community colleges are having trouble attracting students to technology training programs.

In what Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) called “the first in a series of fact-finding explorations,” the full committee on June 12 heard from experts in economics and international R&D. The number of jobs that can be done electronically, and thus are vulnerable to being relocated, is “destined to increase greatly,” according to Alan Blinder, Director of Princeton’s Center for Economic Policy Studies. Globalization will not lead to mass US unemployment, he noted; it will also create jobs in the US, but he warned that more Americans may need to find personal service jobs.
 
Thomas Duesterberg, President and CEO of the Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI, testified that US multinational companies, even as they increase employment among foreign affiliates, also generate employment growth in the US that “equals or exceeds” that of other US companies.

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation President Ralph Gomory warned that the old theories of free trade assumed that production capabilities are fixed. If those are now mobile, he said, it will lead to “a whole new ball game.”

All four witnesses were adamantly against trade barriers and protectionist policies; Blinder called protectionism “a loser’s game.” 

In addition, the federal government should take steps to “ameliorate the downsides” of globalization, as Blinder put it, including addressing the costs of health insurance, litigation and regulatory burdens, ensuring sufficient unemployment insurance and worker retraining, tackling budget and trade deficits and the national savings rate, and addressing the undervaluation of certain Asian currencies and intellectual property theft.

Some of these same themes arose in a June 19 hearing of the Research and Science Education Subcommittee. According to the hearing charter, as manufacturing jobs have become more specialized, companies are reporting difficulties in finding workers with the necessary skills. Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA) cited a National Association of Manufacturers survey indicating that “80 percent of respondents report difficulties in finding qualified people to run their production processes and serve as technicians.”

The witnesses described how community colleges and other two-year institutions, in partnership with industry, frequently fill the role of training high-tech production and technical workers. Community colleges often rely on local businesses to provide information on their needs and develop appropriate curricula, and in many cases an industry advisory board oversees the training programs, provides feedback, and ensures that courses remain current. In addition to oversight of curricula, witnesses stated that businesses could also offer internships, guest speakers, equipment donations, job placement for graduates, and marketing and recruitment efforts.

In echoes of the previous hearing, Stephen Fonash, Director of the Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization at the Pennsylvania State University, said that the US must “innovate or perish,” and Monica Poindexter, Associate Director for Corporate Diversity and College Programs at Genentech, Inc., questioned whether the US education system was ready for the 21st century. Baird and other subcommittee members mused that perhaps the allocation of H1-B visas should reward businesses that play an active role in attracting students to, and helping educate them in, high-tech careers.

Courtesy of FYI, the American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News (http://aip.org/fyi)

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
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