Bye-bye engineering, hello massage therapy
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Friday, April 16, 2004
Bye-bye engineering, hello massage therapy
By Ilana Mercer


Posted: April 16, 2004
1:00 a.m. Eastern

Last week, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao announced her Skills to Build America's Future" initiative. This is a "nationwide outreach and education effort designed to attract young people and transitioning workers to" the "key" occupations of the [near] future: "skilled trades."

This initiative, understandably, was proclaimed with little fanfare. While President Bush looks toward Mars, Ms. Chao can hardly be proud of her decidedly pedestrian prophecy that "construction laborers, carpenters, iron workers, cement masons, bricklayers, truck drivers and many other construction related crafts are among the trades expected to see the greatest demand in workers over the next 6 years." (This demand will be filled, I predict, by "guest workers," i.e., illegal aliens awarded shiny new government permits.)

Telling America's young people that the best they can hope for is careers as tradesmen certainly casts a pall over an administration given to grandiose planning and posturing. Essentially, the mathematically precocious youngsters with aptitudes for science, engineering or accounting must be yanked down to earth. Reaching for the stars in the America of the future will be the exclusive province of "American Idol" participants.

And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics latest Employment Situation Summary, Ms. Chao's future is now. For all the din sounded over the addition of 308,000 jobs to the economy in March, the government-fed news filters failed to mention which job sectors were surging. Sure enough, it transpires that employment opportunities are optimal in construction, retail trade, food services, social assistance, and (naturally) in government.

As economist Paul Craig Roberts a rare independent thinker on the issue observes: "Only labor involved in non-traded goods and services is safe from foreign substitution." In other words, young Americans had better learn to live by their hands lest their livelihoods be outsourced.

If President Bush intends to revive America's space program, engineers will be at a premium. Yet the IEEE-USA, the world's largest technical professional society representing more than 225,000 electrical electronics, computer, and software engineers reports that "American high-tech firms shed 560,000 jobs between 2001 and 2003, and expect to lose another 234,000 in 2004." This contraction cannot be dismissed as the nadir of the dot-com correction. The jobless rate for electrical and electronics engineers was in fact lower in 2002 (4.2 percent) than in 2003 (6.2 percent).

Meanwhile, the Computing Research Association's Taulbee's Survey found that total enrollment in bachelor-degree programs in computer science and computer engineering fell 19 percent in 2003, a factor it attributes to "the decline in the technology industry and the moving of jobs offshore." (Curiously omitted are the impacts of the H-1B and L-1 work visas.)

College administrators are already hip to Ms. Chao's future. For example, San Francisco State University is considering the closure of its engineering school.

Indeed, today's college graduate cannot even expect to find entry-level jobs in the hi-tech industry, warns entrepreneur Rosen Sharma. Sharma heads a Silicon Valley start-up that "could not survive without outsourcing." Nevertheless, he fears for America's future. "As a father my reaction is different than my reaction as a CEO," he admitted to Time.

Pay no attention to such Chicken Littles, high-tech-industry lobbyists counter. Outsourcing is good for America, they claim. Their studies employ the "impregnable" science of econometrics to prove that outsourcing high-tech jobs creates more jobs than it kills. One such study, commissioned by the Information Technology Association of America, predicts 317,387 such jobs will materialize by 2008. The study's premise, however, begs the question, as it assumes the new jobs are and will be as good as the old (vanished) ones.

Why, they'll be even better, brags economist and outsourcing enthusiast, Catherine Mann. Dr. Mann, who also labors under the illusion that only bottom-rung jobs are vanishing, plays Pollyanna to a doubting Thomas, Ron Hira of IEEE-USA. Professor Hira confessed to Washington Post readers that he, an industry insider, had no idea what shape the "new" putative high-value jobs would take. "Is it nanotech, biotech, bioinformatics?" Of one thing he is certain, however: "Other developing and developed countries are targeting those very same industries and jobs."

Thankfully, author Virginia Postrel has located America's burgeoning (and indubitably "dynamist") occupations. She faults the Bureau of Labor Statistics for failing to recognize the rise of spa-related personal services e.g., manicure and massage therapy for the powerhouse growth industries they are. Of course, if Ms. Postrel is to remain faithful to the central thesis of her first book that all change is always good she is obligated to remain, like Ms. Mann, a Pollyanna, despite the new employment reality. Ms. Postrel's second book, the sum of which is that all that glitters is gold, even better encapsulates her enthusiasm for the role eyebrow waxing and other crafts will play in an economic recovery.

Although preliminary even tentative the Bureau's Employment Situation Summary suggests that high-value knowledge jobs are being replaced with low-value service and manual-labor jobs. The ensuing loss of income to American workers will surely outweigh the lower prices outsourcing engenders.

If I refuse to genuflect to this brave new world, it's because the idea of living in communities where applied scientists are unemployed while colonic hydrotherapists thrive isn't particularly enthralling. I'll leave it to the motion obsessed, ever-evolving Ms. Postrel to celebrate that kind of future.


Related columns:

'Exporting' High-Tech Jobs: Part I

'Exporting' High-Tech Jobs II: The Tipping Point

Outsourcing American Lives (third in the series): A Libertarian Alternative

© 2004