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Is a global high-tech work force bad for U.S.?

Experts torn about the impact of a swell of skilled workers in foreign countries and a drop in some U.S. advanced degrees.

WASHINGTON--Could the much-discussed globalization of the high-tech work force mean gloom and doom for historical U.S. dominance in the industry?

Economists debated that topic at a panel discussion here on Monday hosted by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI), a not-for-profit think tank.

For Harvard University professor Richard Freeman, the answer to the question was an emphatic "yes."

Salaries in science and engineering fields are growing at a slower rate than those in, for instance, law and medicine, he said. "We are a wealthy country, we have good jobs, we have good pay, and we've had pretty good immigration policies to letting people in," Freeman said. That combination not only makes America attractive for foreign workers but results in lower salaries for native workers, he said.

The nation needs to be more nurturing toward younger Americans, he suggested, by bumping up the number and value of scholarships for scientific study. The United States recorded about 40 percent of the world's science and engineering Ph.D. students in 1970, but he predicts that number will decline to 15 percent by 2010, with "populous" countries such as China surely outpacing the United States in Ph.D. production.

Nevertheless, there are long-term consumer benefits that spring out of a welcoming attitude toward foreign participation, despite the shrinking numbers of Americans with advanced science and engineering degrees, said Steven Davis, a University of Chicago economics professor and a visiting scholar at AEI.

Much in the way that developing nations have benefited from American innovation, "we can also be a lot better off if the Chinese and the Indians...start developing more commercially relevant innovations, as long as we have the wherewithal to adopt, implement and apply them," he said.

In the long-run, a growing amount of research by foreigners is a winning situation because it leads to increased choices for consumers, added David Weinstein, a Columbia University economics professor. "If you happen to be that person who loses their job or doesn't invent the next Web browser because some Chinese person invents it, you may personally lose, but the economy as a whole may benefit," he said.

Innovation and global competition have become veritable buzzwords in the political sphere in recent months, with both Democrats and Republicans in Congress unveiling proposals geared toward bolstering the nation's stance. Both sides--and --have called for upping research dollars and scholarships for American math, science and engineering students.

But the welcoming attitude toward foreigners expressed by some panelists on Monday--and long favored by high-tech companies lamenting what they deem an American worker shortage--has proved a magnet for controversy. Groups like the U.S. division of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers have argued that the skilled-worker visa system is used not to bring in the best and the brightest foreign talent, but to some extent, the cheapest.