Ford CEO Alan Mulally and Xerox CEO Ursula Burns both decried the state of U.S. higher education Wednesday and said it wasn't producing enough engineers to ensure U.S. technology leadership.
We're fighting for the soul of America right now, Mulally said during a panel at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Mullaly, an engineer, hailed new electric cars Ford is showing off here, such as the 2013 Fusion, but said without better training, there won't be enough technical people available to solve the problems of hybrids, batteries and making the product achieve broad acceptance.
Burns, a mechanical engineer who is also the second female CEO of Stamford, Conn.-based Xerox, decried cuts made to state university systems in New York and Texas this year and warned that other states are chopping higher-education budgets.
My fundamental impression is that we need to make engineering, science and math desirable, said Burns, not just at the university level but also at elementary grades. She, Mulally and Verizon Wireless Senior VP John Stratton all noted the enormous presence of foreign companies at the CES and warned that U.S. companies risk losing dominance.
The Ford CEO complained that until recently, we almost decided not be competitive in automobile manufacturing, ceding ground to foreign suppliers. He said the Dearborn, Mich.-based auto giant has learned a lesson but now needs even more technical talent to maintain new leadership with people who can design 21st-century products.
Earlier, Mulally, the former Boeing executive plucked by Ford Chairman William Ford to take over the company, cited a 1925 ad bought by Henry Ford that called for the automotive industry to open the highways to all mankind.
Mulally noted that was at a time when Ford's market share was dominant and it could have tried to snuff out competitors. He likened that to the electronics industry, where new entrants constantly create new products.
Xerox's Burns, meanwhile, said her company, besides needing to maintain dominance in handling documents and document management in a digital environment, also needs business process outsourcing skills as it takes over more functions for customers.
She said that may require Xerox and other large companies to establish more partnerships, rather than try to do everything independently.
Verizon Wireless's Stratton, who substituted for CEO Lowell McAdam, complained that Wall Street sometimes doesn't allow for technology companies to invest enough to get things right. The uncertainty in the market doesn't encourage investment, he said.
Technology markets, including wireless, are chaotic, he said. Innovations are only produced when the market allows it to happen.