At the risk of sounding like Lou Dobbs, I have a confession: I wish Americans weren’t so geek-phobic.

Whenever I read a roster of technical people, in whatever context-on a website, a faculty list, the authors of a scientific paper, whatever-I’m struck by the number of people who almost certainly aren’t from here. Scan any list of scientists, engineers or chemists, and you’ll find plenty of foreign-sounding names: East and South Asian, Russian, Eastern European, German, etc.

Yes, it’s great that people can come from overseas and give us the benefit of their knowledge. But there’s something a tiny bit unsettling about depending on foreign countries for a large part of our technical expertise.

A recent survey by the American Society for Quality (ASQ) sheds some light on this situation. They surveyed kids age 8 to 17 and found that a whopping 85% of them are uninterested in an engineering career. Among the reasons:

• They don’t know much about it (44%).
• The geek perception; they think engineering would be boring (30%).
• They don’t feel confident enough in their math or science skills (21%).

Perhaps the most unsettling part of the ASQ survey had to do with girls. Only 10% of the girls surveyed said their parents are likely to encourage them to become an engineer. By contrast, 21% reported encouragement to become an actress! That’s about as realistic as telling a boy he can count on a career in pro sports.

This has to stop. There are plenty of smart kids in this country, and they have to be made aware that technical fields are not only fulfilling, they’re often resistant to economic downturns.

Anyone who is still reading may well ask, “OK, Pan, if this is such a big deal to you, why aren’t you an engineer?”

I don’t really have a good answer, except that journalism called to me in my youth, and it was sort of a siren song.

Maybe this old joke can shed some light on these respective professions:

An engineer was supposed to go to heaven, but got routed to hell by mistake. After about a month, St. Peter discovered the error and called down to Satan, demanding that he give up the engineer.

“Hell, no, pardon the pun,” said the Prince of Darkness. “This guy is great. He installed a wireless network, satellite dishes, a state-of-the-art entertainment center, the works. We’re keeping him.”

“You give him back right now!” St. Peter thundered. “If you don’t, we’ll issue a press release telling everyone what a cheat you are.”

“Oh, yeah?” Satan replied. “And where are
you going to find a journalist?”