America’s tech talent shortage: Is it just myth?

The skills gap

FORTUNE – AT&T (T) laid off the last of their switchboard operators in February after more than 130 years in business. What a shocking outcome, given the predictions nearly a century ago. In the 1920s, pundits estimated that by 1940 the rapidly growing telephone network would require 42 million women — or every adult female in the country — to work as switchboard operators. (Women dominated this profession.) This forecast never came to pass because switching systems became increasingly automated. At its peak in the 1940s there were an estimated 350,000 operators.

Fast-forward to this century’s employment doomsday scenario, the lack of technical talent. There’s been a lot of noise in the past few years about the impending shortage of engineers and scientists in the U.S. and its impacts on our future economic growth.

The noise is coming from public and private sectors, from liberals and conservatives alike. Lower immigration barriers, many experts cry, and you can solve the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) talent shortage. Just two months ago, House Democrats met on the steps of the Capitol to promote passage in the House of the comprehensive immigration reform bill that the Senate passed last year.

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President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology predict a shortage of 1 million technical professionals in the coming decade. Amazon (AMZN) had approximately 1,500 technical job openings in 2013. A reporter for The Huffington Post called a long-term tech-talent shortage “economically devastating.”A Wall Street Journal article late last year reported on a host of companies that claimed a “nationwide failure to produce enough strong graduates in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM fields.”

To conduct a thought experiment on this topic, we recently asked a dozen technology executives to grapple with a faux Wall Street Journal headline in the year 2020 that read: U.S. Economy Is Choking! Lack of Skilled Workers, Drop in Government Funding Obstruct Growth. The story beneath the headline painted a dark, recession-weary world in which business opportunities existed in abundance for tech companies working on the cloud, as well as for biotech and energy companies, but not nearly enough STEM workers to feed this potential growth.

The executives were then asked this question: How will your company remain competitive if indeed there is a STEM talent shortage in the coming years? One of the executives around the table immediately echoed Capitol Hill Democrats, “Go abroad. Lower barriers to immigration. That will solve our national problem.”

But what if immigration law does not change, others around the table mused. That sparked an impassioned discussion focused on Google, a company that presumably will always need STEM talent.

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Citing the fact that companies such as Google (GOOG) and countless others have established R&D centers offshore, some participants argued that Google will continue to move its R&D shops abroad. True, most acknowledged, but a second group countered: It’s difficult to transplant company culture and talent far from the “mothership” — many companies have run into trouble trying to replicate their cultures in offices many thousands of miles and many cultural gaps away.

The executives pondered the idea of a world in which global labs cannot solve the problem and, worse, where there is even a worldwide shortage of STEM talent. In other words, what if Google had nowhere to turn for more STEM talent — a truly scary world for a tech leader.

That is when the ah-ha moment occurred in the discussion.

The executives proposed the following scenario: If Google’s executives had to confront a long-term STEM talent shortage, as the exercise suggested, and transplanting R&D staff globally wasn’t really a practical, large-scale solution, Google could take one or two dramatic actions. First, the company could find a way to use fewer technically trained people. For example, they could actually mechanize more of their big data initiatives. Google’s management would create something close to what the manufacturing world calls a “lights out” environment, where you don’t need workers to run the factory. Second, Google might become a very different company, producing an entirely different set of products or services.

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Thus, the group concluded that Google, faced with talent scarcity, will innovate its way to success — living with less talent and even thriving despite this shortage.

This future-scape discussion taught these executives one very important lesson: Today’s critical growth issue — immigration reform, for example — may fade into the background as the truly creative, inventive companies find ways to overcome obstacles.

Not that immigration barriers are good or a STEM shortage is desirable. The point is that the future we imagine today may not represent tomorrow’s reality. Think 42 million switchboard operators. Also consider pure innovation in altering the way we work. Even today we have evidence of how crowdsourcing is able to harness tens of thousands of experts to solve technical problems, people who do not know each other or receive a paycheck from the same employer. Instead of listening to the conventional wisdom, whether it’s sky-is-falling pessimism or tech-topian optimism, we need to challenge ourselves — constantly — and seek outside experts who are willing to flout company taboos and offer alternatives amid the confusing noise that surrounds us.

Leonard Fuld is chief executive officer and founder of Fuld & Company, a global consultancy providing competitive intelligence, research based insights, and advisory services.