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STEM Education: Essential for U.S. Technology Leadership

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In the aftermath of the STEM education bill’s defeat on the House floor, supporters are searching for other means to make sure our young students are exposed to skills which lead to high paying jobs in the technology sector.

While some can disagree over how to raise our country’s low scores in math and science, what cannot be denied is that we possess far fewer specialists in these fields than the tech industry requires. Representing small business developers, ACT repeatedly hears this concern from our members. And ACT members consistently express the urgent need for a solution in their meetings with lawmakers.

Consider the facts. This year, the U.S. economy will create 120,000 new jobs that require a Bachelor’s Degree in computer science. Yet all our nation’s colleges and universities combined will produce only 40,000 graduates with these skills.

Many talented computer science graduates at American universities are foreign exchange students. We pay to educate them and then bid farewell as they take their talents to companies abroad. Our tech industry would be eager to retain these workers, where they could contribute to the growth of companies here in America, but only a fraction are allowed to stay.

The source of our failure to produce high-skilled tech workers can be traced to the dwindling opportunities for schoolchildren to study computer science. Only 2,100 of our nation’s 42,000 high schools offer AP computer science. This figure has been dropping steadily in recent years and directly contributes to the low number of students majoring in the subject at university. A high-placed executive of a multinational tech company recently explained to me that 98% of their employees studied computer science in high school.

Without the ability to hire qualified applicants domestically, U.S. small business tech companies must look to find high-skilled workers abroad. This is not a long-term solution. There are a limited number of high-skilled worker visas (H-1Bs) available and demand far exceeds supply.

The long-term solution to ending this shortage must focus on our students. We need our government to make a commitment to STEM education at the secondary and university level to produce more graduates ready to enter the high-wage tech industry job market.

Last Friday, Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith appeared at the Brookings Institution and brought forward a proposal that might break the logjam in Washington by raising education funds through measures to address the labor shortage. Smith proposes adding more H-1Bs and Green Cards with higher fees dedicated for the technology industry and using the revenue to fund STEM education programs.

The plan would net $500 million for STEM programs. Here’s how:

• Add 20,000 H-1B visas for tech companies over the next five years
• Raise the cost of these technology H-1Bs from $2,800 to $10,000
• Recapture 15,000 unused green cards annually over five years and charge tech companies $15,000 for them.

This increase in costs would be eagerly met by tech companies and small businesses seeking to fill openings. Allocating this part of the visa pool for technology companies would ensure that those with the greatest demand would bear the added cost. Small businesses and startups would eagerly invest in higher cost visas to attract much needed high tech workers.

While this measure would address immediate staffing needs and long-term education goals, there are other groups that have weighed in on the visa issue. Given our high level of unemployment, some object to the presence of foreign workers in our economy and seek greater funds to address worker displacement.

In his Brookings appearance, Smith identified worker retraining as an area where the technology industry can make a contribution. STEM education need not be confined to secondary and university education. There exists a demand for IT workers throughout all industries and these positions are well compensated. Training centers offer programs that make job-seekers eligible for this type of employment.

Certification programs for IT jobs don’t require a university degree and are easily accessible to those in industries suffering job losses. Many veterans returning to the workplace possess technical skills learned in the armed forces, but lack the certification needed to be considered for most IT jobs. These courses often include placement assistance and provide a direct line to employment. They can be a valuable job retraining resource.

A comprehensive STEM education initiative should include measures to assist workers throughout the employment spectrum. Federal funding for IT certification programs assisting veterans and displaced workers would provide a good complement to funds allocated to secondary and university STEM education.

The shortage of high-skilled workers is an issue that must be addressed for U.S. tech companies to succeed. Investment in STEM education is essential for sustained American leadership in technology innovation and growth markets. While Congress’s latest STEM education setback was unfortunate, Brad Smith’s proposal with IT retraining may offer a path forward. We need to find a solution soon. Our global position will grow weaker the longer we wait.