Comment 19: The collapse of America's high tech education? (April 13, 2005)

The 2005 ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest sponsored by IBM was held recently at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. ACM stands for "Association for Computing Machinery". The competition, with its long history and prestige, is viewed as a barometer to gauge the level of computer programming skills in various geographic regions around the world. The world final invites the top one or two teams from each regional division to participate; about 80 teams compete in the world final. In 2005 there were no American teams in the top tier medal winners. There were 4 American teams in the ranked list. Usually colleges from rank 1 to about rank 12 are medal winners, and below that down to about rank 30 they are just said to be in the ranked list. To understand the meaning of this result, the statistics of past American performance are tabulated below; the first number is the number of American teams that have received medals, and the second number is the number of American teams in the ranked list:

The purpose of this comment is to discuss the reasons behind this sudden decline of American college students' aptitude in computer programming compared to their international peers.

The spectacular boom and bust cycles of science and technology in America is nothing new. However, the severity and the duration of the most recent bust of American high tech industry is unprecedented. To understand this high tech trouble in America thoroughly we will first review the historical busts of science and technology in America in the latter half of the 20th century.

The first incident was the sudden collapse of the ivory world of mathematics, physics and chemistry at the end of the 1960's. That bust followed the government-sponsored overproduction of Ph.D's in those fields after the "Sputnick shock". Many surplus Ph.D's in math and physics, utilizing their peripheral skills in the then-emerging field of computer programming, sustained their living by entering into weapons research and telecommunications. Some of them have switched to Wall Street and spearheaded the explosion of the financial derivative markets, to the horror of many economic analysts who fear an oncoming collapse of the global financial system due to the gigantic and interwoven net of derivatives. Many chemistry Ph.D's hid their higher degrees and became lab-technicians in pharmatheutical companies and medical labs. The effect of that boom and bust in America's basic science is still felt today. Generations of bright young American kids have been avoiding those basic sciences like the plague; it is no wonder that the calls of politicians to beef up basic math and science skills in the secondary education system have been met with a yawn, since the general public has a longer memory and is smarter than politicians acknowledge.

The second example is the demise of American video game pioneers. Video games were a purely American invention at the time when inexpensive home computers and game machines became available. After some enthusiastic years, American youths tired of those games. As a result, most American video game companies went under and disappeared from the landscape due to the lack of further support from Wall Street. However, loyal game players and banks in Japan persisted through the hot and cold, thick and thin days and sustained Japanese video game companies. When American consumers reawoke to the frenzy of Pacman, the only major players in the video game industry were Japanese. Many years later, the software giant Microsoft has tried to reestablish a foothold in the video game market through the Xbox. Though this bust cannot be compared in scale with other busts to be considered here, it is a good example how moody American consumers and shortsighted American financial markets combined have turned gold into dust and sent American ingenuity to foreigners free of charge.

The bust of the computer science industry in the early 90's is a memorable one. Many experienced computer scientists were laid off under the pressure of "corporate downsizing", prompting a joke that says, "the career of a computer scientist ends at age 40." This bust was soon forgotten as the tech and Internet boom of the mid to late 90's took hold. However, a sizable number of foreign-educated and foreign-born but American-trained computer scientists, scared by the massive layoffs in the field, returned to their native countries and nurtured new tech powerhouses in the Asian Pacific region. Under this moveback tide, Taiwan has emerged as a significant high tech center. Afterwards, Taiwan's high tech industry began to increasingly migrate to China, putting China on the map as an emerging tech giant and soon also a military giant. On the other hand, Indian-born computer scientists have returned to India to sow the seeds of Indian high tech industries. It is rather ironic that China and India are now talking about cooperating to dominate the global high tech landscape and eventually to put American high tech industries into a dust bin.

The current high tech bust started at the burst of the bubble around 2000 and 2001. Many tech companies vanished, and a massive number of computer experts lost their jobs. The surviving high tech companies, trying not to repeat the folly of the early 90's, desperately held on to their experienced talent but laid off younger talent with less experience and less seniority in order to survive. This trend of laying off younger workers has quickly snowballed to the situation that many newly graduated computer scientists cannot find jobs in the field. This disastrous message then is swiftly passed down the age ladder, and now bright young American talents not only consider computer related field as a taboo but also shy away from science and engineering as a whole. This ill effect is already showing up in the high tech education of America, and most likely is the cause of American teams' sorry showing in the 2005 ACM international competition. This trend is going to get worse for many generations to come. As young American tech talent dries up, high tech companies in America will increasingly be attracted by higher quality and lower cost foreign high tech talents to move high tech jobs to foreign soil. Thus, a vicious cycle will develop, and eventually most American high tech jobs will leave the land with only a hollow memory left in America.

It is important to point out that the computer-related high tech industries are still youthful. Many more developments will lead to continuous and substantial changes in our daily lives and improvements in how corporations operate and how governments are run. Unfortunately, these future developments with very large economic rewards will be increasingly done outside of America as the crisis in America's high tech education deepens.

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