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The Offshoring of Engineering: Facts, Unknowns, and Potential Implications
will, “superdisciplines” based on hybrids of software and other endeavors. Although the United States may have lost competitiveness in significant aspects of the core of information technology, the country’s attention has turned to topics related to CS+Xi thereby providing continuing opportunities. As long as high value is created in these hybrid activities, this is a good outcome.
An analogy is to think of our jobs arranged in a pyramid. As certain jobs at the bottom of the pyramid migrate overseas, the outcome is fine as long as we can move to the top of the pyramid, which of course keeps growing higher. Scenario 2 is optimistic and possible with a field as open ended as software and CS+Xi.
This scenario is pessimistic. When certain activities move offshore, our students and funding agencies take this to mean that opportunities in software have dried up. As a result, U.S. talent dries up, creating a downward spiral. Although there may still be elasticity of demand for innovation, we no longer have the capability to innovate. Given the centrality of software to everything in our lives, this has profound, negative implications throughout the country. I consider this scenario a risk.
Given that software is central to so much in our lives, I believe IT is a crucial fulcrum for American prosperity. I think leadership in aspects of software, particularly the most innovative aspects, is important for the United States. This does not mean we must dominate all elements of software, which is fortunate, because we cannot dominate software as completely as we did in the past. I also do not think software leadership is incompatible with significant offshoring. However, we must remain strong in areas of differentiated value.
As I consider what we should do, my obvious conclusion is that we should attend to our future workforce. We must have a creative workforce that has high value compared to others around the world and that can keep us on the leading edge of high-value opportunities.
Ensuring that we have this workforce will require both in-depth and interdisciplinary education. I think we don’t yet fully understand the requirements and advantages of interdisciplinary education. With our flexible institutions, the United States may be better than most at “interdisciplinarity,” but, when teaching people about computer software and the fields in which we need software applications, interdisciplinary education will require a great deal of careful thought and planning.
It is one thing to argue for a better educated populace. It is something far different to suggest exactly what we should do: incentives, curricula, organizational structures, ethnic and geographical diversity, and so on. It will take some very deep thinking to get these things right. I believe it is time we revisited these topics in far greater depth than we have so far!
When we think of our future workforce, we must also think about immigration. There have been discussions in academic circles about how difficulties in getting into the United States have reduced the immigrant graduate population. Although we want native-born Americans to go into science and engineering, we cannot afford to lose the creative, entrepreneurial immigrants who are integral to our talent pool—and who have done so much for our country throughout our history.
Finally, we must retain economic incentives to encourage people to pursue an education, to work hard and be creative, and to accomplish great things. We must have the right laws to enforce business ethics and honesty, but we must not go overboard in a way the drives the locus of industry off shore.