There is an ongoing debate in the US and other advanced economies as to whether the study of science and engineering will continue to lead to good, well paying careers, or whether such jobs will largely be outsourced to countries with lower labor costs, thus significantly depressing their wages in developed economies in order to remain competitive. This raises a few important questions. In an increasingly global, competitive world, where advanced knowledge is widespread and low-cost labor readily available, will there be enough good technical jobs in the US for graduates with science and engineering degrees? As parents, should we encourage our children to pursue careers in science and engineering, or steer them toward other careers in which they might enjoy higher pay and a higher standard of living? What is the proper role of universities in developing new educational programs to better prepare their graduates for the good technical jobs of the future?
It does seem paradoxical that, at the same time that we talk about transitioning to a knowledge-based economy where technical talent will be of critical importance to the competitiveness of businesses and nations, we have such doubts about the future of technically-based jobs. A major part of the doubt is due to the perceived wholesale migration of technical jobs to other countries. In the past, the US has successfully reinvented its economy several times and created new jobs to replace those no longer viable, but there are fears that this time around we will not be able to continue as an innovation leader given the highly competitive global environment we live in. There is a foreboding in the air that perhaps we've lost it.
The issue of whether technical jobs are still good career choices in the US and other advanced economies was addressed directly in a recent report by the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). While specifically focusing on IT and software, the report applies to technical jobs in general. I particularly liked this paragraph in the overview:
"One might wonder whether IT is still a good career choice for students and workers in countries that offshore software and IT services work. Despite all the publicity in the United States about jobs being lost to India and China, the size of the IT employment market in the United States today is higher than it was at the height of the dot-com boom. Information technology appears as though it will be a growth area at least for the coming decade, and the US government projects that several IT occupations will be among the fastest growing occupations during this time."
The report then goes on to provide very sound advice on how students and workers should best prepare for careers in a fast changing, global marketplace:
"They should get a good education that will serve as a firm grounding for understanding the rapidly changing field of IT. They should expect to participate in life-long learning. They should hone their 'soft skills' involving communication, management, and teamwork. They should become familiar with an application domain, especially in a growth field such as health care, and not just learn core technical computing skills. They should learn about the technologies and management issues that underlie the globalization of software, such as standard technology platforms, methods for re-using software, and tools and methods for distributed work."
The marketplace requirements for technical talent are changing rapidly as technology permeates all aspects of business, society and our personal lives, and the Internet enables us to build globally integrated businesses, industries and economies. As a result, high-wage jobs are growing in “market-facing” areas, i.e., the design of advanced systems and sophisticated applications in many industries, like government, health care, education and entertainment. These new jobs are much more collaborative, interdisciplinary and broad than in the past. They require solid technical competence, combined with industry, business and management knowledge as well as good communication and interpersonal skills. I am also convinced that an interdisciplinary technical education will not just better prepare graduates for the market-facing positions where the vast majority of technical jobs are to be found, but will also help attract many young people to technical careers who today reject them because they perceive them to be too narrow, abstract and socially isolated.
Universities need to evolve their curricula to prepare engineering and science students with the broader skills required for this new class of market-facing jobs. A number of efforts are underway to create a new kind of multi-disciplinary education. In IBM, we have been working with a number of universities to create a new Services Sciences, Management and Engineering research and education agenda. The National Academies recently held a Workshop on Education for Services Innovation that included a number of universities and companies. Several universities have set up new interdisciplinary organizations and programs, such as UC Berkeley’s Management of Technology program and MIT's Engineering Systems Division, where I am personally involved as Visiting Professor. In 2004, over thirty such new engineering systems and related interdisciplinary programs formed the Council of Engineering Systems Universities to help shape the new discipline, share educational material and undertake joint projects.
As with any new discipline in its formative stages, questions abound. What is the proper name of this new interdisciplinary field that combines technology, management and the social sciences? A number of names are used today: Engineering Systems, Complex Systems, Services Sciences Management and Engineering, and so on. Can such interdisciplinary and market-facing skills be taught in universities or are they the kinds of skills that one can only learn on the job? I suspect that through the years, similar questions were asked of other disciplines in their infancy. Over one hundred years ago, we were probably asking whether a university could teach the building of bridges and the design of cars, or whether those skills could be learned only by apprenticing with a master. In the 1960s and ‘70s, many considered programming an art and software something that was too ad-hoc to be taught. Some were skeptical about whether computer sciences and software engineering had anything to do with "real" science and engineering. Manufacturing was not taken seriously as an object of study until the Japanese taught us how much better it can be done when it is treated as a discipline.
New fields of study, especially the kind of interdisciplinary system fields we are talking about, are perceived as too "soft" by some. Again, I believe that acceptance is a question of time. With more research, understanding, hard work and creativity, we will develop all kinds of tools, processes, methodologies and analytical techniques that will go a long way toward creating a "harder," more structured discipline of engineering systems (or whatever we end up calling it).
There are plenty of exciting and highly complex new problems to address and solve in business, society and science. The technology is there to let us go after these problems in new ways, but to do so we will need new approaches and skills. This is how the US will once more reinvent its economy and create all kinds of new, high-paying technical jobs. In the end, it all comes down to innovation.