There Goes The Knowledge Base

What’s happening to the legendary American know-how in the USA today? It’s not exactly “brain drain”, but it’s not the parallel phenomenon of “brain gain”, either. We’re losing our know-how, but the language to describe what’s happening is still alien to our vocabulary.

Wikipedia  defines “brain drain” thusly: “Brain drain or human capital flight is a large emigration of individuals with technical skills or knowledge, normally due to conflict, lack of opportunity, political instability, or health risks. Brain drain is usually regarded as an economic cost, since emigrants usually take with them the fraction of value of their training sponsored by the government.”

In American we saw “brain drain” [as a talent inflow] from several skillset migrations over the past 60 years. Over that same time frame, we saw that the quality of education in America has never been lower than it is today.

After the catastrophic infrastructure and capital losses of World War II, Western Europe suffered huge talent drains to the higher wage scales and thriving economy of post-war United States. Canadian talent has also been siphoned off to the higher wage scale USA to a point of political controversy in Canada.

Educated youth in so-called “third world” nations have turned increasingly to the United states for career and higher education opportunities, and American corporations have embraced this talent pool. This created a workplace environment under which, for native-born Americans, the term “career” has itself become a subject of sarcastic derision.

Golden Gate Bridge, engineering marvel (1937)

Golden Gate Bridge, engineering marvel (1937)

My own former company had been a successful startup operation on the edge of Silicon Valley for over 30 years. Until less than five years ago, many of the employees who helped launch that startup operation were still with us. We had an absolutely awesome “knowledge base”. The company embraced offshore outsourcing in a big way several years ago. Employees of one division were told not to expect to be employed in another year. We had several waves of massive layoffs. It was finally learned that our Silicon Valley office, which had started the whole operation, would be shut down entirely by the end of 2009.

When I was finally tagged for layoff myself on the first working day of 2009, I had “only” 17 years with this company.

Our vice-president for QA said, “Gosh, there goes the knowledge base.”

Next year, the speculation is that almost all quality assurance will be done offshore. I worked with some of the offshore folks on projects we were developing or debugging. They were highly motivated, but there were too few of us left to train them properly, and our company never believed in wasting money on product documentation.

This is just one small company in a high-tech sector. Any consumer who has ever walked out of a retail store, unable to find sales help who could identify, explain or demonstrate the desired product, already has more than enough experience with this problem.

The coming generation of product custodians will lack any real working grasp of the core product or the reasons for its existence. When a fix or “tweak” to one part of the system affects some other seemingly unrelated part of the system, these workers will have no way of predicting the impact, knowing how to test for it, or correcting broken functionality once a problem is reported.

I was reading an interesting article, “Plugged In” by Tad Friend, in the August 24 New Yorker. It is about Tesla Motors, the California electric car company. In this section of the article I found a discussion of the problem of meeting the new Tesla production goals due to the difficulty of getting parts fabricated that meet new and more demanding specs:

“We learned that the car industry is unbelievably good at delivering what they’ve done in the past with a little tweak – faster, or in yellow. But if you want something a lot different – a simplified transmission that’s electrically actuated – that’s too radical. The designers and engineers who can do radical changes all left Detroit forty years ago.”

Conclusions: The loss of the American knowledge base isn’t by outflow; it’s into thin air. Like the irreversible water loss on the dead planet Mars, it’s seeping off by evaporation.

American workers made commitments to invest entire lifetimes in what we used to call “careers”. American management restyled us as “human resources”, like so many silos of grain commodities, and then emptied out the silos. At the same time, we squandered educational resources needed to replace those losses. While at this writing we can still launch vehicles to Mars and the Moon, will we still be able to code decent software, or build a car that will last ten years like it should?

We can always hear old-timers of every generation bluster about how theirs was the last generation that really knew what it takes, and how the new generation didn’t have enough sense to pour you-know-what out of a boot. Sorry, grandpas and grandmas everywhere, this is no longer the case. Perhaps it’s our own peers who’ve dropped the ball.

It’s not that we’re not educating talented and highly skilled youth for the workplace. It’s that we’re not turning out enough of them. In many cases, with so many workplaces devastated by layoff, business failure, attrition and forced early retirement, there’s simply no baton left to pass on.

The talent pool we’ve squandered may never be rebuilt. For this unforgiveable sin we can most certainly credit the arrogant American management of today, that same disreputable ruling caste responsible for bringing us Enron, toxic assets and Lehman Brothers. Business leaders of this throwaway mindset lack the education, vision, skills and courage to do the job.

Thanks to that leadership, we let the knowledge base, our core asset, evaporate off into space.

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