Keane Goes to Congress


    Today, in Washington, a group of private industry and public luminaries spoke before a Congressional hearing titled, "Sharpening Our Edge — Staying Competitive in the 21st Century Marketplace."

    One of the companies invited to speak was Keane, the Boston-based application and business process service provider with operations around the world. A representative from the House Government Reform Committee contacted Keane’s Federal Business in Washington and asked if CEO Brian Keane or President Rich Garnick would be willing to testify. Perhaps because he’s the new guy, Garnick got the job. (Garnick’s an interesting choice too, because he joined Keane from India-based Wipro, where he served as the Chief Executive-Americas, and has run global businesses. He understands how to exploit that global competitiveness for business advantage.)

    This morning he was scheduled to make his comments, touching on three areas, which I’ll share with you here.

    First topic: the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce. Garnick said that to remain globally competitive, the US "must double the number of ‘STEM’ graduates over the next 10 years" from about 430,000 to 860,000.

    The numbers vary from those projected in a recent Duke School of Engineering research project, but it hardly matters. As Garnick’s prepared notes state, "Competition is a numbers game and doubling the number of STEM graduates is necessary to best position the United States for economic prosperity going forward."

    How bad is it? The number of newly declared computer science undergraduates has dropped 33% since 2002. Whoa! That, I’m sure, can be tied directly to the turmoil experienced by the labor force in the computer sciences field during the last several years. We saw the reverse happen as the tech boom geared up and every taxi driver in Chicago was getting his MCSE. It’s no wonder we’re in serious decline. Many US-born students perceive computer science as a dead end, where one’s job could go offshore in an instant. This newest generation is nothing if not practical about their prospects.

    Second topic: government policies. This includes developing "economic policies that support an equitable platform for stimulating investment for enterprises," in particular, setting up free trade zones, eliminating "any tax burden for the enterprise" and addressing the labor costs associated with healthcare.

    Aside from the healthcare issue — which I believe has great merit if he’s suggesting some form of national healthcare reform to replace our current outrageous, inadequate practices — these border on suggesting new and creative forms of corporate welfare. Thanks, but no thanks.

    In India those types of machinations make a lot of sense. You can see the positive results in the formation of a massive middle class. Companies need to grow there by reaching outside the borders to attract business. Tax-free zones are great bribes. The government will get its cut on the back side.

    But this country is still the biggest consumer on the planet. (Companies can enjoy plentiful profitability just reaching out to US customers.) Our tax structures, while loathsome, aren’t crippling. (Just ask the typical US public company CEO, who’s managing to find enough in the budget to earn 431 times the salary earned by the average worker.) Besides, who could possibly think up the appropriate mechanisms to ensure that tax breaks would do anything more than help the corporate recipient cut domestic expenses in order to expand overseas — defeating the purpose of those tax breaks in the first place (if their purpose is to encourage "domesticity")?

    Another suggestion he offers: making the tech and science industry a "national agenda item" as is done in places like India and China. I like this one a lot. If the R&D and tech talents of this country really matter, let’s set up a cross-matrix czar reporting to the Departments of Commerce, Education, Energy and Labor to monitor the metrics that matter in this area and make recommendations befitting a national agenda.

    Third topic: roles for industry, such as companies educating young people on career opportunities in high tech and hosting internships. (I’d add to that, having those companies prove that they’re reinvesting in growth again and that a lot of that investment will go to hiring math, tech and engineering experts on home turf and not just through the H-1B visa program.)

    Garnick concludes that "the global race has not only started, but that countries including China and India are pulling ahead…They have the will to win, and so must we."

    I’d say, US companies lack that will to win in these areas. The ones that are considered model companies are often incredibly vested in exploiting the opportunity to use a global labor force. Their efforts to act as a force for change on the home front are remarkably anemic.

    I’m loath to trust that Congress could set up anything that wouldn’t have kickback in ways we couldn’t predict. And private industry won’t act until there’s truly a crisis and it costs them big bucks. Wouldn’t you agree that this is one movement that’s going nowhere? It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion.