By Dr. Algie Gatewood
It is, indeed, the 21st Century. Different aspects of the emerging global economy can be seen everywhere. When I had some trouble with my computer recently, I didn’t take it down the street to a repair shop the way I might have a broken toaster 20 years ago. And heaven knows, I didn’t try to fix it myself. Instead, I spent about two hours on the phone with “Tech Support.”
But I didn’t spend my time talking with someone from Portland or Seattle or Chicago or Houston. The man who helped me, quite skillfully, was fromIndia. He was an employee of the company whose software I was struggling with – an American company – but he worked inIndia.
Being a collegial sort of person, I didn’t just talk shop with this young man – I started a conversation. As we worked on my software problems, I learned that this skilled, articulate professional held a bachelor’s degree. He helped struggling Americans and Britons and Canadians with their software troubles for the princely sum of $20 per day – and he was happy to get it.
As most people know, the scenario of talking to a tech support person based in India or Pakistan or some other far-flung locale is practically a cliché. It’s just the way the world works these days. Multinational corporations have realized for some time now that emerging nations have a wealth of well-educated, talented people who are willing to do things like tech support at a fraction of the wage that an American would demand.
This begs a number of pertinent questions: Are large corporations greedy for seeking out labor forces on the other side of the globe who are willing to work for far less money than Americans? Do Americans – and other Westerners for that matter – have a sense of wage entitlement that just doesn’t square with the global economy anymore?
While these issues are worth exploring, they pale beside the more important, overarching question: How do we here in America compete in this new economy, and how do we avoid losing more and more skilled jobs to citizens of other nations?
There is no easy answer, I am afraid, but I can tell you where we begin: with education.
If we, as a society, make it a priority to produce the best-educated, best-trained, most versatile work force we can, then we can continue to be competitive in the global economy. This is not a complete solution to the problem of job out-sourcing, but it is something we can do now, with the resources and infrastructure we already have on hand. And the best place to start is at your local community college.
Today’s community colleges are ground zero for obtaining the skills necessary to find gainful employment in today’s hyperspecialized, technology-driven workplace. A whole range of two-year degrees and professional certifications can be earned at community college, which allow people to function productively and intelligently in a job market that is already far more complex than it was just a few years ago. And of course, community college is a low-cost gateway to earning a four-year degree and beyond.
My computer works just fine now, thanks to the young man from India. I was happy to talk with him and learn a little bit about his life. As I hung up the phone, however, I couldn’t help imagining a world in which I could take my computer down the street to a repair shop – and have it fixed by someone who studied at the community college in his or her neighborhood.
Algie C. Gatewood, Ed.D. is president of Portland Community College’s Cascade Campus.