Tech issues, including high-skilled jobs creation, outsourcing, manufacturing and research investment, emerged in Tuesday's presidential debate, offering contrasts between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
The candidates steered clear of tech's most radioactive issue, temporary work visas like the H-1B, and didn't mention IT offshore outsourcing specifically, though they came close.
Apple was lionized by Obama as model of success, while Romney pointed out how Apple was victimized in China.
The topic of outsourcing produced much fire between Obama and Romney, but a little too much smoke for Candy Crowley, the veteran CNN reporter who moderated the debate.
Crowley jumped in and asked the candidates about how low-wages paid to workers in some countries is seen as a driver to moving work offshore.
The exchange began with a question from audience member Carol Goldberg, who asked: "The outsourcing of American jobs overseas has taken a toll on our economy. What plans do you have to put back and keep jobs here in the United States?"
Romney replied first.
"China is now the largest manufacturer in the world," he said. "It used to be the United States of America. A lot of good people have lost jobs. A half a million manufacturing jobs have been lost in the last four years. That's total over the last four years."
By mentioning China specifically, Romney was referring to a country with a broad range of manufacturing jobs.
The most prominent Chinese manufacturing jobs are in the tech industry, which includes giant companies like Foxconn. Foxconn employs more than one million workers and produces key Apple products.
In a report released this year, the National Science Foundation said U.S. high-tech manufacturing jobs reached a peak in 2000, just before the dot-com crash.
Tech manufacturing job losses were exacerbated by the recession that began in 2007 and led to the collapse to the financial sector in the fall of 2008.
In total, the NSF said high-tech manufacturing jobs have declined by 687,000, or 28%, since 2000. The NSF definition of high-tech manufacturing includes the computing machinery along with aircraft, spacecraft and pharmaceutical industries.
TechAmerica, an industry group, tracks high-tech manufacturing specifically and its research finds employment numbers that are equally stark.
According to TechAmerica, tech manufacturing employed 1.8 million people in the U.S. in 2000, but that number had fallen to 1.27 million by last year.
Romney argued that the shift of jobs from the U.S. to overseas locations is a result of U.S. policy. "We have made it less attractive for enterprises to stay here" he said.
Romney said he would implement policies that make the U.S. more attractive to entrepreneurs, and to small and big businesses, while going after China for "artificially holding down the value of their currency."
China's currency valuation "means their prices on their goods are low," said Romney, who also called for bringing down tax rates on employers and cutting regulations, while eliminating the so-called Obamacare health care program.
Obama, in response, said he agreed with Romney that the corporate tax rate should be lowered but said he disagreed with the challenger about how to do it.
"I want to close loopholes that allow companies to deduct expenses when they move to China; that allow them to profit offshore and not have to get taxed, so they have tax advantages offshore," Obama said.
Obama said that Romney wants to expand tax breaks in ways that will encourage outsourcing. Those breaks pushed by Romney will create jobs, Obama said, adding that "the problem is they'll be in China, or India, or Germany."
Crowley fired off her own outsourcing question after Obama finished responding to Romney.
Asked Crowley: "[The] iPad, the Macs, the iPhones, they are all manufactured in China. One of the major reasons is labor is so much cheaper here. How do you convince a great American company to bring that manufacturing back here?"
"The answer is very straightforward," said Romney. "We can compete with anyone in the world as long as the playing field is level," he said.
Romney said China has been "stealing our intellectual property; our designs, our patents, our technology. There's even an Apple store in China that's a counterfeit Apple store, selling counterfeit goods. They hack into our computers," he said.
Obama said "there are some jobs that are not going to come back, because they are low wage, low skill jobs. I want high wage, high skill jobs."
To help get those jobs created, Obama said his administration is investing in efforts to produce advanced manufacturing tools.
"That's why we've got to make sure that we've got the best science and research in the world," said Obama.
"And when we talk about deficits, if we're adding to our deficit with tax cuts for folks who don't need them, and we're cutting investments in research and science that will create the next Apple, create the next new innovation that will sell products around the world, we will lose that race."
On high-skilled immigration, Romney emphasized permanent visas, or green cards, "to people who graduate with skills that we need. People around the world with accredited degrees in science and math get a green card stapled to their diploma, come to the U.S. of A."
Some proposals for green cards in Congress limit them to students with advanced degrees who are graduates of U.S. universities.
Obama didn't address the high-skill green card issue, but has previously called for green cards for graduates of U.S. universities with science, technology, engineering math degrees.
Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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