Learning to keep U.S. jobs

To compete with workers in other countries, our academic programs have to become more rigorous

“I’m an American, and I hate sending American jobs overseas, but I have no choice. How do I tell my customers they will have to pay more and my investors they’ll have to make less so I can keep those jobs over here?”

It’s a good question; how would you answer it?

I was speaking with the CEO of a software company at a gathering of CEOs in the Boston area. We had had a nice breakfast at a country club. We were sipping our coffee during a break between presentations.

He went on, “As long as I spend over a million dollars a year, the subcontract rate for the development I need is less than $100 an hour. In this country, it would be much more expensive, and the programmers wouldn’t be as good. Tell me how I can keep those jobs here without losing my job.”

So what would you tell him?

He’s getting his software developed in Bangalore, India. The Karnataka province, which includes Bangalore, has phenomenal math education, beginning early in grade school. In fact, they even teach Boolean algebra in grade school. These kids grow up to be phenomenal software and logic programmers and engineers.

Microsoft, Intel and almost everyone in high tech discovered this decades ago. They’ve brought plenty of them over here on H1-B visas. Once here, they get paid the same as everyone else, so there’s no labor rate savings. That’s not the attraction. In fact, it costs a fair amount of time and money to get them over here – so much so that many of these companies have built facilities over there, and then, yes, they can save a lot of money.

Even so, the big attraction, even more than the costs in many cases, is something called competence. Generally speaking, many of these folks can run circles around many of ours.

Did you ever notice that, generally speaking, Olympic champions, regardless of the sport, all started young? They learned early, kept at it and got better and better.

Bangalore is developing Olympic-class programmers; many of our high school and even college grads can’t make change from a dollar. How can they possibly get lucrative jobs like these?

No doubt, there are all kinds of political issues with Common Core, No Child Left Behind and other programs to improve our education. Unfortunately, most of these are defining minimum acceptable standards. We’re competing against people that are trying to soar into the stratosphere while we’re trying to define the bottom.    

And then we load these programs with various political agendas making sure we’ll never agree on them. Why can’t we learn about math, sciences and other subjects without being indoctrinated one way or the other?

Meanwhile many of our recent grads can’t get really good jobs. It’s really tough to pay off those student loans when you’re asking, “Would you like fries with that?”

Like many CEOs, this guy is between a rock and a hard place. If he doesn’t use the best programmers, his products won’t be competitive. Additionally, people are willing to pay only so much, even for the very best.

Do we have any school committees that understand this? It’s a global marketplace for labor. We can’t command high salaries unless we produce high value. Despite a mediocre grade school and high school education, you can buckle down in college and really learn something of value, but will you be competitive with someone who started at a much earlier age than you did?

If your parents have money, you can get a very good education in private schools. But what about all the other kids who can’t do this? Do we really want to systematically keep them out of the running for these lucrative jobs?

Just adding a few courses won’t fix the problem. Many academic programs would need to become far more rigorous. And somehow we have to be able to help kids understand the real benefits of working harder than they see some of their friends working.

Or we could just keep doing what we’re doing and hope for the best.

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or RonBourque3@gmail.com.