On Saturday, May 17, the New York Times ran a front page story (below the fold) on the dearth of Japanese students entering science and engineering fields. Japanese universities call it rikei banare or "flight from science." The article notes:
The decline is growing so drastic that industry has begun advertising campaigns intended to make engineering look sexy and cool, and companies are slowly starting to import foreign workers, or sending jobs to where the engineers are, in Vietnam and India.
The article continues by relating comments from Japanese students that they prefer high-paying jobs in disciplines that do not require the long hours and hard work associated with science and technology careers.
Does this sound familiar? It should, as we in the U.S. are also struggling to attract enough students into computing disciplines with marketing campaigns, curricula changes and outreach programs. These outreach programs are critically important, because we and other science and engineering disciplines have for too long failed to include a sufficiently broad and diverse community in computing. We can and must do better, for both ethical and practical reasons.International Competition
At roughly the same time as the New York Times article appeared, Georgia Tech's Technology Policy and Assessment Center (TPAC) released its bi-annual "High-Tech Indicators" report. Via TPAC's metrics, China has now surpassed the United States in a key measure of international competitiveness. On a 100 point scale, China's technological standing is 82.8, versus the United States at 76.1. While China's ranking increased from 22.5 in 1996 to 82.8 in 2007, the United States ranking peaked at 95.4 in 1999. Equally tellingly, if the European Union were considered as a single entity, it too would have surpassed the United States.
This is not news to those of us in the computing and technology world. Global competition is fierce and international companies seek competitive advantage wherever they can find it. As Manufacturing and Technology News put it, there has been "no Sputnik moment" to awaken the broader population to the competitive challenge and the need for an internationally competitive knowledge workforce.Looking Ahead
Without doubt, there has always been ennui about the next generation and their interests. Many of us have heard the old saw about walking five miles in the snow-- barefoot -- to school and that it was uphill both ways. In my case, my late father regularly asked me if I were ever going to get a "real" job. (Perhaps my now working at Microsoft qualifies as a real job!)
Generational jocularity aside, in a technological society where continued economic vitality depends on knowledge creation, a qualified pool of knowledge workers is the only truly renewable resource. Smart, educated people will always be in short supply. Each country's long-term competitiveness depends on having enough such people to engage their international peers. The "Gathering Storm" report made this point clearly and pointedly.
Closer to home in computing, Andy Grove got it exactly right when he famously said that only the paranoid survive. However, most people do not realize what he really said. The full quotation is more thoughtful and thought provoking:
Success breeds complacency.
Complacency breeds failure.
Only the paranoid survive