Note: The Skinny blog is written by Rick Smith, editor and co-founder of WRAL Tech Wire and business editor of WRAL.com.
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Count entrepreneur-turned-academic Vivek Wadhwa and Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at UC-California Davis among the skeptics about whether a growing demand for more high-tech engineers will lead to a long-term solution for demand.
In his trip to the Triangle, President Obama called for 10,000 more high-tech engineers per year. (Read his speech here.) Industry wants them, too, plus more “green cards.” But some people wonder if a bust will follow when the next tech bubble bursts.
Wadhwa, a former Triangle entrepreneur who now spends time researching, teaching and writing at Harvard Law School, Duke, UC-Berkeley and elsewhere, is a frequent critic of current US immigration policy toward high-tech students, engineers and entrepreneurs from overseas. He wants more “green cards” for these highly skilled people to help the US maintain its competitiveness in all things tech.
One might think that Wadhwa would welcome the call of President Obama and his Jobs Council they made in the Triangle on Monday for 10,000 additional engineers per year. They want an increase in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.
However, in a discussion on the New York Times online forum, Wadhwa warned that additional students and engineers needed to be recruited for a series of reasons. He’s concerned that a recent uptick in college enrollments for computer science is being driven by the revival of tech stock offerings and the social media rage.
(The discussion was triggered by a New York Times story highlighting computer science becoming “cool” again on college campuses. Read the story here.)
“As we learned from the last technology bubble — the dot-com era — high-flying tech careers can be very seductive,” he wrote. “When students started reading about the young millionaires of that era, they flocked to computer science, and enrollments reached record levels. And then the bubble burst, and so did enrollments.”
Matloff added his own warning about another boom-and-bust cycle.
“Yes, some students today are indeed captivated by the Facebook phenomenon, captured in ‘The Social Network,’ he wrote. “But the savvier college students, especially those whose parents have been squeezed out of tech by age discrimination, are understandably skeptical. Indeed, many of the best and the brightest, exactly the ones the industry ought to keep, have sought greener pastures. In 2007, 29 percent of M.I.T. grads went to Wall Street rather than Silicon Valley, at far higher wages, a disparity that continued even after the financial crisis.”
Wadhwa wants students motivated by efforts that stress the importance of engineering to the country’s future, as in the days of Sputnik.
“Parents encouraged their children to become scientists; the president told us it was a national priority; and we made huge investments. Science was sexy, chic and essential,” Wadhwa said.
He’s afraid new students now are focused on “cool, but not earth-shattering” social apps.
“By the time these computer science majors graduate, we may be in the middle of yet another tech bubble, so these kids may do O.K.,” he added. “But we will not have made any progress toward fixing the real problems and may have celebrated for nothing.”
Read the full discussion at The Times here.
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