NEW YORK – Getting kids excited about science and technology (search) will help keep jobs here at home and will reduce the need to import talent from other countries, government officials and company executives said Wednesday.
"I think we have to find ways to excite kids [about those subjects] probably as early as elementary school," Phil Bond (search), under secretary of technology for the Commerce Department, said Wednesday, adding that girls, especially, should be encouraged to follow career paths in those fields. "We have to keep them going through the process — we're losing half the talent pool," Bond said.
Bond's comments were delivered during an offshoring (search) conference sponsored by the Information Technology Association of America. Offshoring — sending work of U.S. companies overseas — has become a political lightning rod during this election year.
ITAA President Harris Miller called the issue an "emotional one" that continues to be surrounded by rhetoric from labor unions, politicians and others who say offshoring means less work for people here at home.
"If you believe some of the rhetoric, you'd think Silicon Valley was going to move to Bangalore [India] next year, and that's not the case," Miller said.
Offshoring has affected blue-collar workers in America's factories for years. But the issue has exploded in a presidential election year with an exodus of white-collar service jobs, particularly in call centers and technical support.
John Kerry (search) has hammered away at President Bush (search) on the outsourcing issue — saying American workers are losing out to foreign workers on jobs that can be performed more cheaply overseas. Bush, on the other hand, has argued that the United States cannot take an isolationist or protectionist stance in a global marketplace.
Many U.S. companies and trade groups are siding with Bush, saying that in order to remain competitive in a global marketplace, the United States has to have a presence in overseas local markets.
"The great misconception is that U.S. companies go abroad for cheap labor," said Joseph Quinlan, chief marketing strategist for Banc of America Capital Management. But, he said, outsourcing has been going on for over 100 years. "You have to be in country to compete," he said. "That's just how the global marketplace is."
Last Friday, the Labor Department issued a report that said in the first three months of this year, the jobs of 4,633 U.S. workers were sent to foreign workers — indicating that few layoffs here at home can be blamed directly on working being sent abroad. Those displaced workers were about 2 percent of the 239,361 private-sector, non-farm workers who lost their jobs.
Industry officials point out that work is also insourced as an increasing number of foreign companies open up shop in the United States and hire Americans to work there.
For example, Quinlan said, 25 percent of the manufacturing workers in Kentucky work for foreign affiliates like those in Japan or China.
To keep the United States on top of its game, not only does it have to export some work but it also has to have a higher skilled workforce to be able to do the work here, and to better compete with foreign workers.
"We're turning out more students with English and history degrees," Miller said, while countries like China, India and Taiwan are raising the quality of their own higher education institutions.
"We're not seeing the results we'd like" to encourage entrance into the high-tech sector, particularly after the dot-com bust, he said, although some efforts have been made in the Bush administration to focus on the need to strengthen these programs.
High tech companies and other businesses also want student visa restrictions relaxed so foreign students can study at American schools and stay in the country to work after graduation.
"We have a brains deficit," Quinlan added. "You can let the good students and good teachers into the United States … or companies can go overseas to tap into it … we want to continue to attract the best and brightest."
And although most of the country's 15,000 school districts are now wired for the Internet, that doesn't mean technology is being utilized as well as it could be in the classroom, Bond said. There's a huge need for further teacher training on how to use technology in a way that gets kids interested, he said, but a positive step is that a new generation of teachers that has grown up with technology is coming down the pipeline.
Nanotechnology — the art of manipulating materials on an atomic or molecular scale to build microscopic devices, such as robots — could be the next big thing that gets kids' attention, Bond later told FOXNews.com.
"I'm hopeful that's going to fire up kids," he said.