Dont Let Creativity Crisis Drain U.S. Work Force

Opinion: Rather than splitting over issues such as outsourcing, the tech community needs to show the government that its policies are out of step with global economic realities.

Outsourcing and immigration are two hot-button political issues that divide the tech community, making it difficult for the industry as a whole to find common approaches to the economic changes that everyone, more or less, agrees are inevitable.

Its not just tech folks who are at a loss over what to do, however. Taking their cues from the traditional divide between labor and management, politicians have come up with ham-handed solutions.

Republicans would just as soon close U.S. borders to immigrants. So would some liberal Democrats. As for outsourcing, moderate Democrats dont know what to do. Republicans, well, they just dont see the problem. And pretty much everyone is at a loss as to how to balance concerns about terrorism with the need to be part of the global economy.

/zimages/4/28571.gifHas outsourcing hit a fault line in tech? Click here for a column.

A clearer path between these issues—one that treats them as symptoms of a larger problem, not as isolated trends—is starting to emerge. Anyone who is interested in the intersection between economic growth, politics and policy in the coming century should read "Americas Looming Creativity Crisis" by Richard Florida in this months Harvard Business Review.

It is an important essay because it spells out the problems the United States is facing in attracting, hiring and keeping talented workers. And it makes some smart recommendations that should become public policy but wont—unless tech folks put their political muscle and energy behind them.

Florida, the Hirst Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University in Arlington, Va., offers Harvard Business Review readers a preview of his next book, "The Flight of the Creative Class," due out next year.

Florida made headlines with his last book, "The Rise of the Creative Class," suggesting that creative cities—which he believes are the economic centers of the next century—are those with large gay populations. That diversity, he argued, is a measure of tolerance which, in turn, encourages creativity. And if youve ever been to Macworld, you know exactly what hes talking about.

Florida worries that attempts to close U.S. borders to students, visiting artists or immigrants looking for work is particularly dangerous, since it comes as the nations largest group of workers—those ubiquitous baby boomers—are retiring. "The labor shortages that plagued high-tech companies in the halcyon days of 1999 and 2000 will look like a minor irritation in comparison, " Florida warns.

Sounds great if youre an engineer. But Florida is justly wary of a society that is divided between high-tech, skilled workers who can demand a premium for their services and those who are not as well-educated or trained. He believes there should be some limits on the free market. And he offers three broad suggestions:

One: Tear down those walls. If foreign-born workers in the United States cant travel freely for business, if students are denied visas, and if researchers are subject to an insulting level of scrutiny, how can the United States—in a global labor market operating at all pay levels—attract, keep and develop talent? It cant, Florida says. "Over time, terrorism is less a threat to the United States than the possibility that creative and talented people will stop wanting to live within its borders," he writes.

Two: Make government spend money. "Whats needed is the equivalent of a GI Bill for creativity," Florida says. He doesnt mention it, but this is precisely whats going on in California, where the states high-tech community has gotten behind a ballot initiative that would pump $3 billion to support stem cell research into the states colleges and universities. The measure is expected—if it passes—to create a biotech hothouse for research, development and jobs in a new field of scientific endeavor.

/zimages/4/28571.gifRead more here about how stem cell research could help keep U.S. jobs.

Three: Pay (and insure) those who help you so they can, in time, help themselves. The United States needs to stop treating service jobs—the jobs held by unskilled workers, many of them new immigrants—as the luck of the draw. Instead, treat these jobs—and the gardeners, manicurists, waitresses, housekeepers and janitors who hold them—as initial rungs on the nations ladder of upward mobility.

"The United States needs to substantially upgrade the pay, working conditions and status of the huge number of service jobs its economy is generating," Florida says. "These are the port-of-entry jobs to the creative economy of today."

In playing its politics, the high-tech community likes to focus on specific ideas—stocks options, H-1B visa problems, stem cell research—all of which hamper its ability to do business the way it sees fit. But, as Florida points out, each of these problems points to a larger, more intractable set of issues: a government policy that is very much out of step with global economic realities. Its that overarching problem that should be getting techs attention. Before, as Florida warns, its too late. Technology and Politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology every day in her Politics from Left to Right Weblog.

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