The Future of Tech in the U.S.

Wayne Rash
In the State of the Union speech, President Obama made a lot of proposals and promises about the role of technology in the economic future of the United States. If he gets everything he wants, we could see everything from thousands of newly-minted engineers and scientists to a national wireless broadband network, to virtually universal clean energy. But of course, these are just proposals. The question really has to be whether all or even any of these proposals will really happen.

Perhaps more importantly, the next question must be: If they do happen, will anything happen soon enough, and in a manner that will have any impact on your business? For example, the proposal for 80 percent clean energy by 2025 is nice, but probably beyond the planning horizon for even the most forward-thinking company. On the other hand, something that would help improve the supply of trained engineers in the next few years could be useful.

And that's the problem with broad proposals such as the ones the president put forward in his speech. They sound nice, but unless they're realistic and achievable, then it's just so much hot air. A few things that were in the speech are actually near-term or already under way. The idea of widespread wireless broadband is being actively promoted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and is being implemented by wireless companies-unfortunately, each is being implemented in a way that's proprietary to each company, so the idea that you might be able to travel coast-to-coast and have a wireless broadband connection the whole way is basically a dream. It likely won't happen.

Other proposals, such as high-speed rail service, are already in progress. There's already high-speed rail in the Northeast, and has been for decades, and as the president mentioned, it's faster and cheaper than flying, and you don't have the pat-down. Other even faster systems are going in elsewhere around the U.S., and the high-speed rail in the Northeastern U.S. is being expanded. This will make business people more mobile, and that will help commerce, especially in a world where air travel is suffering the transportation version of severe constipation.

But what's less noticeable is that high-speed rail is also coming to the freight business. The first new high-speed freight rail lines have already been built near Washington, D.C., and are being expanded through the East and Southeast, and eventually into the Midwest. These will do more to help commerce and lower costs than any of the interstate highways on the drawing board.

But it's the other stuff that seems unlikely. Providing a greater supply of highly-qualified engineers and scientists must start long before the university level. Schools must be grooming children from middle school on to be interested in science and math. But given the tragic conditions at the public schools in the U.S., the chances of that happening are remote. Remember, these students are taught by teachers whose numbers have been forcibly diminished, whose salaries have remained unchanged or even reduced over the years, who have been saddled with increasing workloads and diminished authority. Funding for schools is being reduced year after year. If we're lucky, students are learning to read, and maybe do simple math. But only a tiny minority will ever have the opportunity to excel.

Likewise, other proposals such as paying for innovation by eliminating oil company subsidies seem like another way to describe the Lobbyists Full Employment Act. It'll never happen. The proposals are nice, but the government will never be able to make them happen.

But there is a choice. You can help make some of this happen. Your company can help fund education and your company can help seek out excellence. But you have to decide that you can't wait for this government, or any government, to do it for you.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jan 28, 2011 6:01 PM Jim Bob Jim Bob  says:
Ok, I always seem to hear that we need more engineers. I don't believe it. There is an urban myth that an engineering or technology degree is a gateway to a job and career. The problem is that I know way too many who have graduated from university to unemployment. The issue in the country is that we have terrible transitioning mechanisms to take people from the university to the workplace. Reply

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