American college grads: Homebodies with worthless degrees

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I had a somewhat disturbing conversation yesterday with Steve Fussell, the senior VP of human resources at pharmaceutical maker Abbott. His basic message, which I may pursue in a column down the road, was that Abbott is going to be hiring tons of people for high-paying jobs over the next decade, but not many of them will be Americans because we study the wrong things in college and we’re not willing to work overseas.

The key quotes:

1) “I hate to say we don’t have the world’s best universities. We may have the best minds, the best liberal arts education. The problem is it doesn’t match the work anymore.” (That is to say, not enough students are getting science and math degrees.)

2) “I don’t have these graduates in Europe and Asia telling us they want to live with mom and dad or they don’t want to relocate to Asia.”

I don’t know what I can do about the second issue, but here’s my contribution (via Robert Waldmann) to persuading American college students to change their majors before it’s too late:

Update: As this post has taken on something of a life of its own, I feel compelled to confess that one phrase above is really not the most accurate representation of what Fussell said. I write that of Abbott’s hires in the decade to come, “not many … will be Americans.” Depends on how you define “many,” but what Fussell really seemed to be trying to get across was that not as many as he would like will be Americans.

Also, in the comments, omarlittle says that:

American citizens have to pay US taxes even if they work abroad (one of the only countries to have such a system), they will also not be paying into social security and lose out on future pension payments.

I’m sure there are some situations where what omarlittle says is true, but as somebody who worked overseas (in London) for a U.S.-based company (Time Warner), I can report that I still paid in to Social Security and that, because foreign income taxes are deductible on U.S. tax returns and because the UK has this great system where you’re exempt from their taxes every day you spend out of the country, my tax burden went down during the two years I lived there.

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