Thursday, April 30, 2009

Back to the Future?

Those of you that have been following my occasional blogging may remember that I proudly have a “math geek” 13 year old son. I enthusiastically reported to him that this year’s list of top jobs ranked math number one. Of course, being an executive recruiter specializing in the quantitative business sciences, I was equally excited to report this to my readers.

Just when I thought things were headed in the right direction for my son and all of you, more bad news came out of Washington. In a shortsighted attempt to protect US workers from competing for jobs with recent immigrants, financial institutions and other firms that have received taxpayer bailout money are barred from hiring employees on H1-B visas. These visas are required for highly educated, specialized workers in order for them to be legally employed here in the United States.

How would this have a negative impact on my son’s career future, you might ask? Wouldn’t this improve his chances for a choice job after college and maybe even bid up his salary? Absolutely not. In order for our country to continue on its path as a world leader in innovation and education (although I question this), we need to keep the best and the brightest minds in science and mathematics here, including foreign workers. We should welcome them with easy access to working visas and keep them challenged and motivated by limitless opportunity. Otherwise, we will see our standing as the leaders in innovation in this technology age quickly evaporate as opportunities permanently move with this talent to their home countries. And that could happen by the time Jay completes his college education.

As an executive recruiter who has specialized in placing quantitative professionals (including mathematicians, statisticians and econometricians) for over 25 years, I am very aware of the acute shortage of professionals with a solid quantitative background. We are simply not able to fill all the open positions in this fast growing discipline with home grown candidates. This has resulted in the escalation of foreign quantitative graduates with H1-B visas filling the void. Additionally, off shoring of these jobs is a direct result of our inability to answer the demand. And, by the way, I have seen no evidence that this has had any negative impact to salaries of US citizens in this discipline.

Math education is vitally important to the long term ability of our country to compete in a global economy. I am counting on President Obama to address this issue, perhaps with some prodding from Bill Gates. But I also think that our society needs to evolve in the way we view mathematics as a field of study. Scientists are portrayed as “mad” in movies and TV. Lawyers, businessmen and politicians are glorified by society and rewarded with huge compensation packages. No wonder kids can’t find any benefit from continuing their math education beyond the minimum requirements.

Parents also must reexamine their thinking about their children’s education. Many so called helicopter parents steer their kids away from the higher level math classes because they increase the risk of a lower GPA and reduces their chance at acceptance into the best colleges. And, math is unforgiving in the sense that your answer is either correct or it is not. No partial credit or negotiating for a higher grade. Hard work is required to master math.

With all that is going wrong in the economy right now and the need for immediate action to limit the short term impact, my hope is that we do not lose sight of the long term goals for our country. As always, I welcome your comments.

Linda Burtch
Burtch Works


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