Having just returned from India, I can certainly vouch for the fact, asserted by retired Lockheed chairman Norm Augustine in Forbes, that Indians, among citizens of certain other foreign countries, share “a belief that the path to success is paved with science and engineering.” Middle class Indian parents, in fact, seem obsessed with the idea that their children should study engineering. Countless institutions, from dingy storefronts in small rural towns to major urban universities, claim to offer that precious opportunity. A myriad of cram schools, in addition, litter the country’s highways and byways with signs claiming to prepare students to ace the exams that, as these ads assure nervous moms and dads, will indubitably pave the way to upward mobility.
The same, Augustine laments, is not the case in the United States. “Part of the problem,” he argues, is American parents’ apparent “lack of priority…on core education [as well as] problems inherent in our public education system.” Having spent a number of years as a middle class American parent, however, and also having known others of the breed, I have not observed any lack of desire to provide children the tools for career advancement in adult life. To the contrary, middle class Americans are every bit as interested as their Indian counterparts in giving their children the best possible opportunities.
But here’s the difference: In India, a degree in science or engineering really can be a ticket to serious upward mobility, the difference between one’s child spending life in a broken-down country town or in a sleek office and beautiful home in a classy urban neighborhood, the parents enjoying major, lifelong bragging rights, potentially large dowry payments, and — because of the still widely prevalent joint family system — a far better standard of living.
In the United States, none of this is true. Indians obsess about science and engineering, and they’re frank about this, not because they have an inherent love of the subjects (though some may, of course). Rather, these courses of study are the absolute best routes to the pinnacle of many people’s career aspirations: a lucrative job with one of the prestigious multinational corporations that have filled Bangalore with flashy high-rises and traffic jams of late-model private cars and are now doing likewise for the nearby, lower-rent garden city of Mysore.
American kids also used to flock to science and engineering — say, back in the early days of the space program. Then, the field provided glamor, challenge, security, prestige, and good pay. The same phenomenon occurred for journalism careers in the 1970s, during the blaze of publicity enjoyed by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. Who wouldn’t want to earn good money in a career portrayed on the big screen by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman (in the case of reporters) or by Tom Hanks and Sam Shepard (in the case of rocket engineers)? Indian movies and TV, incidentally, glamorize young techies in just the same way.
But today, a science degree is no longer an American’s path to glamor and fortune. Instead, it is often a ticket to low-paid, 70 hour weeks as a postdoc in somebody elses university lab. An engineering degree appears to many to be an invitation to spend a relatively short career worrying about when your job will be shipped to India, or when a younger person with more recent training (who can afford to work cheaper) will take your place. The “negative impression” of science careers that Augustine laments as widespread among American youth is richly deserved. Why should an American smart enough to master those difficult disciplines invest his or her youth and promise in such a chancy undertaking?
For an Indian student, of course, the calculus, as it were, is entirely different. A topflight science or engineering graduate has a good chance of landing a very good job, as well as a very good marital match negotiated by his or her status-crazed parents. A degree from a top program may even lead to a temporary — or maybe even permanent — visa to the United States. (It’s worth noting, though, that some spoilsports in India are starting to suggest that even this job market — the Indian one — is becoming glutted by a combination of homegrown holders of mediocre degrees and of expired temporary visas returning from the US).
What is the cause of the imbalance between the US and Indian aspirations? Many in the US (who get less publicity than Mr. Augustine) argue that it is the policies of Mr. Augustine’s own fellow business executives, who have for years been outsourcing work from America and suppressing technical pay here almost as energetically as Indian students have been cramming for their tests. The recent Gathering Storm, Revisted, report of the National Academies frankly admits as much.
If Augustine wants talented young Americans once again to become scientists and engineers, rather than, say, neurosurgeons or investment analysts or intellectual property lawyers, these critics suggest, he could take a more realistic course than defaming their increasingly anxious parents. He could, for example, devote some of his formidable energy and influence to restoring the incentives — real incentives; career opportunities worthy of many years of study — that will once again attract America’s best into those careers. Storm, Revisted, helpfully suggests that tax and visa policies that now favor corporations at the expense of American technical jobs might be a good place to start.