Insight over spontaneity

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Insight over spontaneity

Yeom Han-woong
The author is a professor of physics at Pohang University of Science and Technology (Postech) and vice chairman of the Presidential Advisory Council on Science and Technology (PACST).

A dramatic surge in prices of green onions this spring became a big issue. If farmers grow more green onions than before — and if the crop is not damaged — a dramatic increase in production could trigger a precipitous fall in green onion prices. That’s quite a familiar scene in Korea. Despite the need to find a solution in a fundamental way, no one tries to address the system, which will take a long time to fix.

The government’s policy to cultivate manpower for science and technology is no different. While the production cycle for agricultural produce is only several months, it takes at least 10 years to draw up a policy to raise talent for science and technology. After artificial intelligence (AI) emerged as a new norm and platform businesses became the mainstream in industries, manpower for coding and AI is needed more than ever before. Due to a lack of skilled workers for the job and soaring payments for them, companies urge the government to come up with effective solutions. After the government announced a plan to train 100,000 people with such qualifications, universities have hurriedly decided to hire professors and open new courses of study.

Though an increasing number of top high school students are applying to be AI majors in college, it takes at least four years to educate them — and no less than five years to have them get doctoral degrees. To tell the truth, it takes one to two more years to train them in industry. As the manpower problem is not addressed properly, industrial experts put the blame on the government. That’s a sad déjà vu.

We know what happens next. After 10 years, a number of people with expertise in AI will be hired by IT companies. But many of them will lose their job due to oversupply of manpower. The concentration of talent on AI-related majors coupled with our alarmingly low birthrates will cause a critical dearth of manpower for such fields as biotech, semiconductor and materials. The vicious cycle makes scientists and engineers worry about the government policy to raise talent for science and technology.

Despite the need to educate and train such manpower for a mid- to long-term development and innovation of our industries, the government and politicians are bent on drawing up half-baked policies aimed at getting more votes in elections. The speed is remarkable indeed — just like getting a coke immediately after putting a couple of coins into the vending machine. We are skeptical of their sincerity, not to mention their understanding of the problem and insight into the future.

Manpower planning calls for long-term goals, not a spontaneous reaction to the demand in each field. If the government really wants to draw up fast ways to educate and train AI talent, it must first analyze what went wrong in the past, divide the demand for talent from the market into short- and long-term categories, and carefully approach the issue.

But such an integrated approach is nearly nonexistent in Korea. The question of manpower for science and technology is dominated by pressing issues of the moment, and the nurturing of AI talent is unilaterally devised by the Ministry of Science and ICT. They don’t even seek advice from the Presidential Advisory Council on Science and Technology (PACST), where I’ve been serving as vice chairman. As a result, policies with low efficacy are being made repetitively. As a result, the basic frame to nurture manpower for science and technology over the mid-to-long term is shaken.

That’s not the current government’s responsibility alone. The supply and demand for industrial manpower should be addressed by the market itself, but companies have shunned it. It is time for the public and private sectors to make combined efforts to find fundamental and systemic solutions to the deep-rooted problem. The job could start with a general survey of our science and technology manpower as recommended by the PACST. We can hardly expect a comprehensive policy from the government to tackle the problem under the circumstances where there is no data on college graduates, holders of master’s degree and Ph.Ds or post-doctoral researchers in the science and engineering fields.

We also must establish a system that will help calculate and predict the science and technology manpower demand from companies just like a regular health checkup is needed.

We are living in the age of innovation that destroys existing industries. We have passed the industrial age where it was enough to train talent tailored for a particular area. The time has come to accept a revolutionary change in nurturing manpower for the new era.
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