Monday, September 19, 2005

An Enlightening Initiative from IBM

IBM's program to help science education is an object lesson to the tech industry at large, but perhaps conceals an inadvertent irony.

Many have decried the declining trend of math and science education, and have sounded dire warnings that the technology industry will grind to a halt if something is not done about it. Luckily, some are now putting their money where their mouths are.

IBM has this week begun a program that supports its employees in the US who want to transition into science teaching. The new program, says MSNBC, "reflects tech industry fears that U.S. students are falling behind peers from Bangalore to Beijing in the sciences". Of course, IBM is not the first to act. Microsoft has an "Innovative Teachers" professional development program, which includes $50 million in software grants for educational institutions.

Not surprisingly, these two companies also rank at the top of the most favored places to work in the tech industry. Perhaps it just goes to show that comapanies that take an enlightened approach to their role in society take an enlightened approach to their employees as well. Stanley Litow, head of the IBM Foundation, says that many other companies are watching keenly and may follow suit.

Such programs are particularly valuable as the US tech industry is clearly down from its halcyon days of untrammeled growth - starting salaries for college graduates have shown marked declines between 2001-05, the biggest decline being in Electrical and Computer Science & Engineering.

But where's the irony? Litow's comment that "Over a quarter-million math and science teachers are needed, and it's hard to tell where the pipeline is", got me thinking. Perhaps the pipeline is precisely in those locations which the US is concerned about being overtaken by!

Think about it. It is now possible for students in the US being taught online by tutors sitting in Bangalore or Manila. And it's already happening. And given the obvious pecuniary advantages, it is not unlikely that teachers in these countries would gravitate to such an occupation in larger numbers.

The irony is that, it is not inconceivable that in the near future, outsourcing destinations for tech jobs such as India may find their growth stifled by a scarcity of high quality tech graduates. This scarcity will be caused in good measure by good science teachers being preoccupied with training students overseas. And what will allow the teachers to thus divert their skills? The same technology and forces of globalization that drove the offshoring of jobs from the West, and created demand for tech jobs in India in the first place! Now, why do I have the feeling that this is not the last irony that this new, globablized world is going to serve up?