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How to Cure the Energy Brain Drain

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Lately, pundits and commentators have warned that America's place in the renewable energy market has begun to slip, in part because fewer students are pursuing degrees in the hard sciences and engineering.

How can we ever be a solar powerhouse without fresh ideas and students? Meanwhile, utilities, energy conglomerates and the nuclear industry all face the problem of mass retirement. President Obama, for instance, will soon appear on MythBusters to tout solar energy.

The bad news is that it's true. The even worse news is that it is part of a long-term trend that shows no sign of reversing. At the beginning of the decade, IT executives like Seagate CEO Bill Watkins (now CEO of LED maker Bridgelux), Intel alum Andy Grove and National Semiconductor's Brian Halla all warned about the U.S. Brain drain.

Increasingly tough immigration laws have made the problem even more difficult. Most highly ranked graduate programs in the U.S. rely heavily on foreign students. Unfortunately, these days, many have difficulty getting green cards to stay after graduation. Countries such as Israel, Taiwan and even China have begun to mimic the lab-to-company concept pioneered by Silicon Valley, which is prompting even more to stay home.

How do we cure it? Often, you hear that you have to make science and technology more engaging for kids, particularly in the early grades. Create positive role models in technology. Make it seem interesting and exciting.

But I've got a more surefire solution: Pay them more.

Yes, pay engineers and technical graduates more than they get now -- put them on par with marketing and/or sales staff -- and create a career track so they can stay on the bench.

Money is really the root problem here. When a math or science major graduates from MIT, Rice or U.C. Berkeley these days, they face a choice: take a research position in a company and pursue their heart's desire or make five times as much toiling as a Wall Street flunky. They aren't taking that Goldman Sachs job just because there wasn't a Cosby Show about engineers.

And even if they do pursue the research track, they will butt up against an uncomfortable truth a few years later. Namely, in order to advance, they will need to get an MBA and become a master of management sciences. Once they complete their MBA, the greater odds are that they will join a consulting firm like Bain & Co. where they will charge hundreds of dollars an hour to tell people that what America needs is better technical education.

How pervasive is this mindset in corporations? Former Intel CEO Craig Barrett allegedly once said, "The half-life of an engineer, software or hardware, is only a few years."

The real shocker here is that Barrett is probably the single most sincere tech exec when it comes to boosting the national well-being through science and education. He taught at Stanford and wrote a seminal textbook on semiconductors. He championed education at Intel. A lifelong Republican, he's working with the current administration to reverse the trend of intellectual decline.

The same occurs in Japan. Companies lament the decline of its flagship national brands. Where is the talent going? Finance and sales, most execs tell me.

China, India and South Korea, meanwhile, continue to rise because engineering represents a path to middle- and even upper-middle class respectability.

"The job market has worsened for young workers in S&E fields relative to many other high-level occupations, which discourages U.S. students from going on in S&E, but which still has sufficient rewards to attract large immigrant flows, particularly from developing countries," Harvard economist Richard Freedman wrote in a 2005 report.

That said, let's not lose track of unique U.S. strengths, such as shameless marketing and a great ability to glad-hand. We lead the world in coming up with viral videos, Foursquare Mayoral races and wacky company names that somehow click: others merely follow. You lock a team of Israeli PhDs in a room for a year but they'd never come up with something as compulsive as Zynga. It's no coincidence that the world's first mass-produced electric sports car came from the good ol' USA.

We know how to stimulate impulse buying. But to keep the competitive edge, we've got to share more of the rewards with the men and women in the lab.

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