A perfect storm of computer trouble (ok, maybe not perfect, but pretty darn good) has kept me from finishing any new articles, though this should come to an end this week. But while waiting for things to improve, I’ve been pointing your attention (here and here) to various signs that China, which is investing heavily in science and engineering, is catching up to the U.S. and its political and economic allies. The course I taught earlier this month, in which I gave an introduction to particle physics and to the Higgs field and particle, was followed by a couple of lectures by an economist teaching at Williams College, and he pointed me to one other article that I had not been aware of. This one is from the New York Times; I can’t vouch for its accuracy, and I don’t know anything about the main authors (Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher), so… buyer beware. The article has to do with the quintessential modern company: Apple.
Let me quote from the article, to pique your interest:
It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.
Another critical advantage for Apple was that China provided engineers at a scale the United States could not match. Apple’s executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company’s analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States.
In China, it took 15 days.
Companies like Apple “say the challenge in setting up U.S. plants is finding a technical work force,” said Martin Schmidt, associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In particular, companies say they need engineers with more than high school, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. Americans at that skill level are hard to find, executives contend. “They’re good jobs, but the country doesn’t have enough to feed the demand,” Mr. Schmidt said.
“We shouldn’t be criticized for using Chinese workers,” a current Apple executive said. “The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need.”
Of course, I’m cherry-picking out of a long article. While these quotations do capture its dominant thread, that thread is woven together with several others. I certainly don’t pretend to have the solution to the multi-faceted problems that it explores. But I do think it is important that citizens of the U.S. and its friends not have their heads in the sand, pretending nothing is changing. China isn’t just a huge, cheap, unskilled labor force; it also has a growing, highly-skilled labor pool, able already to out-compete its U.S. counterparts. This is not an accident. The Chinese government is making good choices. Perhaps the experts in China have learned from South Korea; anyone ever heard of Samsung? If you think all Samsung does is copy Apple’s phones, your head is in the sand. Look it up.
We live in a world dominated by science, engineering and technology. If we lose our edge in these areas, we may, in the long term, find ourselves no longer important players in that world, with economic and political costs that could be very high indeed.