US Can't Lose Its Tech Edge

Everyone knows how to get a TiVo programmed. Just look for an eight-year-old.

The popular assumption is that tech know-how decreases with age. The younger you are, the more you inherently know in that realm.

It's true that teens easily incorporate digital gadgets into nearly every aspect of their lives. They communicate by cellphone, download music via computers, entertain themselves with video games, and express their feelings in personal online blogs.

The skills needed to use technology aren't as challenging as those needed to create it. Not everyone who drives a car knows how to design one.

Apparently young Americans want to be users, but not makers, of technology. The number of incoming college freshmen who chose computer science as a major fell more than 60 percent between 2000 and 2004, says a report from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA earlier this year. In addition, fewer high schoolers are bothering to take the Advanced Placement computer science test for college. Especially alarming is the sharp drop in the number of women entering the field. First-year women interested in studying computer science fell 80 percent between 1998 and 2004, the report says, returning to levels not seen since the 1970s.

Yet computer-software engineers will be among the jobs most in demand through 2012, say estimates from the US Department of Labor.

What gives?

Teachers of computer science (whose numbers are also declining) say that when today's students think about the field as a career they conjure up images of being stuck in a windowless room peering into a screen, writing endless lines of computer code. Not exactly a dream job.

Bill Gates, the world's No. 1 computer guy, disagrees. The Microsoft chairman is puzzled and worried by the trend. In a recent speech he spoke of the excitement that should surround computer science, which develops products that benefit billions of people around the world.

High-tech companies are already going overseas to find talent not being produced in the US. More than half of the computer scientists in the US are foreign born. From Google's Sergey Brin (Russia) to Yahoo's Jerry Yang (Taiwan), immigrants are rising to the top of US-based high-tech industries.

Both the US government and corporations need to let American students know that the technology they love is designed by people in high- paying, rewarding jobs. It's time to print up the campaign posters: We need you to be a computer scientist.

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