by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
September 28, 2004
EDUCATION IS NOT THE PANACEA
LOS ANGELES -- The governor of California signed a bill this week to give special privileges to hybrid cars which get better than 45 miles to the gallon. The president of the Ford Motor Company objected. Apparently Ford can't build that car, while the Japanese can.
Perhaps this is flogging a very dead equine metaphor. To point out that the U.S. continues to lag the Japanese in automotive production technology is to belabor the obvious. After all, this has been going on since the 1970s.
In this case, the state of California wants to encourage people to buy hybrid (gasoline plus electric) cars which get excellent mileage. The incentive is that drivers of these cars will be allowed to use the carpool lane on our crowded freeways, even without carrying a passenger.
Toyota is building that car. Ford isn't. This is an indication of something important that is going on in our country. The opinion leaders and the media don't seem to understand. They should take this failure on the part of American technology as a clue.
Another clue: The H-1B visa program has allowed American corporations to bring in workers from overseas by the tens of thousands. Computer programmers from India make thousands of dollars less than experienced Americans. Lately there has been some political resistance to this program, but management has deftly switched its focus for controlling labor costs to outsourcing.
Meanwhile, American politicians and editorial writers have been selling our people a bill of goods called "education." I don't mean that there is anything bad in getting educated. To the contrary, I was raised in a family that viewed education as valuable in and of itself.
The liberal arts and the sciences were respected as developing the mind, the character and the ability to make a decent living. My use of the quotes around the word "education" is meant to signify its misuse by politicians and editorial writers.
What I refer to is a message that OpEd writers and candidates for public office repeat mindlessly as they offer advice to laid-off workers and to students facing an uncertain future.
The message is that to compete in this new world economy, you have to get an education. The implication, laid down smooth as sun-ripened strawberry jam, is that with that education, you will be able to be successful in work and in life.
The problem, as our recent history shows, is that our country is doing everything it can to turn that assertion into fiction.
The H-1B visa program is probably the best example. Think about the thousands of students who struggled through university programs in computer technology in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They did it in the expectation that they were about to move into the high end sector of American technology.
Sure, the dot-com bubble overinflated some of those expectations and the inevitable puncture took a lot of jobs with it. But there are still many companies developing software. Other companies develop hardware that requires software to run.
Engineers and software writers are needed to do these things, and it probably seemed to college freshmen in the late 1990s that Information Technology (IT, as the insiders call it) was a good career path.
The problem the young college graduates discovered is that they are not only competing with each other, they have been competing with thousands of foreign workers who are perceived by the corporations as cheap, well trained labor.
Accent on the cheap. The H-1B program, among others, brought wage competition of a most aggressive sort.
As registered voters began to notice, the political viability of the H-1B program shrank. By mid-2003, Congress allowed the number of H-1B visas to decline in number. An October, 2003 article in Computerworld.com explained: "A congressional cap on the number of foreign workers allowed to come into the U.S. on H-1B visas reverted on Oct. 1, the start of the federal fiscal year, to pre-dot-com boom levels of 65,000 visas. Congress did not extend an earlier limit of 195,000 visas."
Still, the corporations managed to hold their own. As Computerworld remarked, "The reduction this month in H-1B visas might not have a significant short-term effect on companies that use the visas to bring foreign IT workers to the U.S., and long-term the trend toward offshore outsourcing could mean demand for the visas is lower than in the past, say those who track the industry."
In other words, there is plenty of cheap labor around to keep those pesky American kids in their place. Which is, of course, on the unemployment line unless they are willing to work for less.
The broad subject here is the education of the American worker: Is it serving the necessities of our industries? Is it serving the interests of our workers? But mainly, are we even asking the right questions about education as it relates to employment?
We can sort these questions into two major streams. The first is worthy of several books: Is American education doing the job to supply the reasonably foreseeable needs of American society?
My answer is a resounding no, but that "no" requires a whole separate discussion.
The other major fork in this discussion has to do with how our political system has been handling our employment needs. My argument is that "education" is being served up by politicians and parroted by the mass media as some sort of panacea. It is ladled out to students and voters alike. Whenever our economic failures are at issue, the politicians trot out the line about "increasing educational opportunities" or the like, as if this would be a cure.
A careful evaluation will reveal the essential falsehood of this argument. The unemployed engineers and programmers are one line of evidence.
The hypocrisy is clear. Our politicians rolled over for the billionaires who own computer software companies so that they could hire foreign programmers by the thousands. Computer hardware manufacturers were likewise able to hire foreign engineers to design their products.
The result is that many of the technically trained Americans who could be holding jobs in the Information Technology industry are not. Notice that this situation is of purely political origin. Had there been less foreign competition, more homegrown Americans would be employed in the industry. The average salary level would probably be a little higher, and the number of highly trained workers might be somewhat lower, but our nation would have kept its faith with the thousands of students who took up the challenge and "got an education."
In this election year, we are confronting the problem of loss of well-paying American jobs through outsourcing. At first, the outsourcing was of information-processing jobs. The ability to sit in a cubicle and answer questions is now a worldwide opportunity. At one time, such jobs were moved to Nebraska. Now they are going to southeast Asia.
The new wave we are now observing is the outsourcing of engineering work to Asia. It's no longer just telephone operators. Now it is the well-paid design work that is being lost.
Previously, we suffered outsourcing of manufacturing jobs. As design, manufacturing, assembly and public relations work all go out of the country, what is going to be left?
The blunt truth is that education is only useful for getting a job if a job exists or can reasonably be expected to be created. In an economic and political climate where giant corporations move jobs out of the country, you can have a great education and still find yourself competing with a hundred equally educated people for one entry level position.
In an economic climate where employers actively recruit cheap foreign workers, and this with the knowing complicity of the government, what chance does an average Joe have? The act of cutting the number of H-1B slots to 65,000 was an exercise in closing the barn door after the jobs had escaped.
Politicians who take money from the corporations and repay the favor by shafting American workers should not be allowed to hide behind their big lie that Americans are undereducated. This is an exercise in blaming the victim. Reporters and editorial writers should not let this scam pass, yet they do.
And finally we should consider that new California law on hybrid cars.
As reported by Steve Lawrence of the Associated Press, the president of the Ford Motor company called the new law a "buy Japanese bill." It is only a buy Japanese bill because Ford and GM can't or won't compete at the technical level.
This is a country that has some of the best engineering schools in the world. If Detroit can't take advantage of the talent that comes out of MIT and Stanford in order to build a better car, then what is the point of all that talk about education? We are underutilizing the people we do educate, even as we promise the moon to newcomers - if only they will get an education.