TCS Daily

Got Tech?

By Dominic Basulto - September 13, 2005 12:00 AM

By almost any measure, the rest of the world is catching up to the U.S. when it comes to preparing the next generation of future technology leaders. Worrisome signs are appearing on the horizon that the U.S. is no longer able to attract the best and the brightest to careers in the sciences and engineering. In fact, U.S. institutions of higher education are graduating less U.S.-born science and engineering graduates than at almost any time in the past 30 years, while foreign-born graduates increasingly prefer to repatriate overseas rather than remain in the U.S. After the dot-com collapse and the incessant worries over jobs lost to IT outsourcing, the future U.S. tech talent pool is shrinking when it should be growing. What the U.S. tech sector needs now more than ever is a renewed sense of mission that will enable it to attract the next generation of Americans to science and technology careers.

It's an interesting paradox: at a time when American youth seem to embrace technology more than ever -- whether it is iPods or PlayStation Portables or the latest "Matrix" film -- the number of U.S.-born science and engineering students continues to plummet. At some point during the educational cycle, it appears, parents and educators are somehow dissuading the nation's youth from considering careers in technology. As Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman recently pointed out at an innovation conference at the Library of Congress, too few students arrive at college with an interest in math or science. Becoming a great scientist, it appears, is no longer an educational imperative.

The U.S. needs to do something now to get more kids interested in science and technology before it is too late. After the U.S. recently finished in a tie for 17th place in an international computer programming contest (losing to a team from Shanghai), many observers within the U.S. computer science industry acknowledged that the writing was on the wall. This was a competition that Americans used to dominate, and now teams from China, India and Russia are the favorites to win each year. In our nation's schools, there's plenty of blame to go around -- students blame teachers, teachers blame parents, parents blame administrators, and administrators blame anybody else but themselves (e.g. companies that send jobs overseas).

One solution to this problem might be a nationwide marketing campaign along the lines of the award-winning "Got milk?" advertising campaign, which used a fun and compelling message to promote milk consumption among all age brackets. The campaign, which launched more than 10 years ago but is still going strong, was started by the milk industry in response to worrying signs of a decades-long decline in U.S. milk consumption. Unable to put up the advertising dollars to woo young students away from soft drinks, the milk industry dreamed up the type of marketing campaign that you read about in MBA case studies. Milk wasn't just for breakfast anymore -- it was part of a healthy lifestyle. Milk does a body good.

The "Got Milk?" campaign was targeted to the nation's youth, but resonated with parents and educators and administrators. By some estimates, the "Got Milk?" campaign is now recognized by 90% of all consumers across the nation. In less than a decade, the whimsical milk moustaches featured in the ads and the presence of celebrity endorsers turned milk into a cool drink alternative and rescued the milk industry from economic irrelevance.

So what would a "Got Technology?" campaign look like at the national level? For one thing, it would involve more than a few celebrities and a memorable (albeit grammatically incorrect) marketing hook. It would involve a message that would appeal to more than just policy wonks and tech gurus -- it would convince the nation's youth that careers in technology and the sciences are desirable once again. It would reassure moms and dads across the nation that technology does a brain good -- that majoring in the sciences is not a ticket straight to the back of the unemployment line. It would be part of a comprehensive effort to improve the recruitment and education of U.S. students, thereby reinforcing U.S. economic competitiveness.

By way of comparison, look at how nations like Russia encourage their youth to pursue careers in the sciences in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. In Moscow, for example, there are subway stations named for great scientists like Mendeleyev and monuments dedicated to cosmonauts -- as well as to the rocket scientists who put them into space. When a Russian student team won the ACM programming contest two years ago, the contestants were invited to have a personal audience with President Vladimir Putin. Somewhere along the line, technological prowess became a national priority for nations like Russia and India and China. In these countries, computer users are not geeks -- they are national champions celebrated for vanquishing global rivals.

Just as the "Got Milk?" campaign boosted milk consumption by focusing on the healthy and nutritional aspects of the product, a "Got Technology?" marketing campaign would focus on all the benefits of consuming technology education. Students would be encouraged to complete coursework and training that would give them an edge against international competitors. Ten years from now, when Chinese and Indian leaders are puzzling over how they squandered an opportunity to become the world's technology leader, perhaps they will look back and realize what stopped them: a bunch of kids with high-tech milk moustaches.

Dominic Basulto is the editor of the popular blog Corante New York, which covers technology and business in New York. He writes about business, technology, and the financial markets for TCS.



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