A Really, Really, Really Inconvenient Truth

(Almost Certainly Will Not Get Me the Nobel Peace Prize)

Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay

Lots of students approach college with this attitude: "Just teach me what I need to know to pass the course, graduate, and get a job." Amazing isn't it? "Thinking outside the box" has become a cliche, and yet students still want to stay inside the box!

You can do that.

And naturally, you want to be paid for it.

The problem is, there is some guy in Bangalore...

And he can do those same things, too...

For a whole lot less.

Now the bean counters start looking to cut costs. You have ten seconds to explain why they should keep you instead of outsourcing you.

Have you ever asked yourself why everything hasn't been outsourced? It's because unpredictable events keep popping up and requiring people to deal with them.

True story: I once had problems installing an anti-virus package. It would get up to 95% complete, then the computer would shut down and reboot. I finally decided to bite the bullet and call the [pay] tech support line. I got a heavily accented "Allo, my name is Bruce." Right, I thought, and my name is Apu Nahasapeemapetalon. So I explained the problem. As soon as I got to the power shutting down, he said "It's your power supply." Nothing I said could budge him from that fixation. That's an answer that makes sense in much of the world, where voltages and frequencies vary erratically. It does not make sense in the developed world, where the power supply is very stable. So I thanked him for his help and e-mailed the vendor, arguing I should not be billed because the answer was technically unsound. Apparently they agreed, because I wasn't.

One moral here is that if I hadn't known about electric power in other countries (which is not something in my job description), I'd have been off on a wild goose chase, and probably spent a lot of money on repairs that would not have fixed the problem. (What finally did fix the problem was resetting the operating system to a previous set point. If the tech guy had suggested that I'd have kicked myself for not thinking of it and paid the fee.)

Although we make fun of Indian call centers, all the Indians I have ever known have had a work ethic that kicks American butt. India and China are fast becoming the largest technical trainers in the world, and China has universities that rival Harvard and MIT. Nevertheless, many outsourced workers are narrowly trained and can't answer questions that someone with broader training can see.


The other advantage a local worker has is she's on the scene and can see myriad local connections and issues that someone at the other end of 10,000 miles of fiber-optic cable cannot. But only if she thinks outside the box of "Only what I need to know."

This is a Car

Oh, I am so going to ace this part of the exam.

This is Not a Car

This is how lots of students approach college. They see everything as disconnected tidbits of information. The car above consists of all these parts, but far more important are the connections and interrelationships between them.

What Mechanics Have to Know

The days when you could think "I can replace spark plugs and change oil. If worst comes to worst I'll get a job in a garage" are long, long gone. Here are some sample questions auto mechanics have to answer to become certified.

  1.  A vibration occurs while driving a vehicle with an automatic transmission at normal speeds. This vibration does not occur during a stall test. Which of these is the cause?
    1. Torque Converter
    2. Drive Shaft
    3. Crankshaft Main Bearing
    4. EPC Solenoid
  2. There is a whining noise coming from the front of the transmission that increases with engine speed. This noise is present in all gears including park and neutral. The most likely cause of this is the:
    1. Planetary Gearset
    2. Oil pump
    3. Output shaft
    4. Torque converter

Note that these are not simple memorization questions (b. is the correct answer to both). Not only does the mechanic have to know what each part is called, he has to know what they do and how they interact. Also, especially, he has to know what happens if they don't interact as they should. And this is what auto mechanics have to know. Just imagine what people with university degrees are expected to know.

So why are so many college exams like the disconnected parts picture above? Because memorization is important. I can't guarantee that someone who aces an exam on the names of parts will be a good mechanic, but I can give you absolute assurance that someone who doesn't know the names of parts won't be a good mechanic. Yep, all those "tough, nit-picky" exams? They'rerock bottom minimum indications of competence. If you think they're too simple, you may have what it takes to succeed. That depends on whether you think they're too simple because you're far beyond that level, or think they're too simple because you simply don't know the material.

What We're Up Against

Shanghai, 1990

Shanghai in 1990 looked like an American city from the 1950's.

Shanghai, 2010

This is what it looked like in 2010. If China ever uses oil at the rate of the U.S., the world will need seven more Saudi Arabias. This view is from further away than the 1990 view and higher up. The green-topped tower at far right in 1990 is the lighted tower left of center in 2010, and the square building and green pyramid at lower left in 1990 are also at lower left in 2010.

While the Chinese were unrolling an LED screen the size of a soccer field at the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony, we were groveling before people who want to see Obama's birth certificate and still insist the earth is 10,000 years old. I watched the opening ceremony and contrasted it with the sorry spectacle of the 2008 Presidential election and thought, they are going to mop the floor with us. And we won't even have to learn Chinese, because they will do it in perfect, unaccented, idiomatic English, because unlike Americans, the Chinese are not too lazy to learn foreign languages.

Yes, I used the "L" word. Regardless of what groups middle class Americans like to stereotype as lazy, the harsh reality is that the rest of the world increasingly sees Americans in general as lazy.

Bottom Line:

1960: "Modern industry has given us soul-crushing, mindless, dehumanizing, degrading jobs that reduce workers to cogs in a machine."

2010: Where did all the good industrial jobs go?

You mean all those "soul-crushing, mindless, dehumanizing, degrading cog in a machine" jobs?

Yeah, those.

They've all been outsourced to India and China.

What! That's an outrage!

There has never, ever, in the whole 4.6 billion years of the planet, been a worse time to train for a job with closely defined requirements where you wait to be told exactly what to do. Even in the good times, those jobs were a guaranteed career path to a dead end job and waking up on your fortieth birthday and realizing your life sucks. Nowadays, when you can hire someone off the street in a poor country and give him minimal training to do the same job, it's career suicide.

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Created 23 February 2011, Last Update 31 May 2020