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Education Must Begin at Home

Granted, a country's potential for entrepreneurial ingenuity and technical innovation can't be measured simply with standardized tests of high schoolers. Regulatory and tax policies, individual initiative, creativity and work ethic, and any number of other factors are also critical to success. But the OECD study should at least give us pause that our next wave of workers doesn't have the technical grounding of their counterparts in most of the rising industrial powers. No wonder, as noted in this column last month, that immigrants and foreign nationals are earning an ever-larger percentage of the math, science and engineering degrees awarded by U.S. colleges and universities. Foreign-born individuals now account for at least half of our country's engineering Ph.D students, for instance.

Most of the readers who responded to that earlier column are less than concerned about this trend. They argue that fewer American students are concentrating on the "hard sciences" because they see their friends and relatives struggling in those fields. Because there are fewer technical jobs to be had, or they're less interesting than they once were, students are gravitating toward other professions—basic demand and supply.

Readers argue that foreign students, especially those from developing countries, are flocking to U.S. technical colleges only to break into the relatively attractive U.S. job market. Once they're in, they're exploited to the detriment of American IT pros. (One reader characterized the H1-B visa program, whereby foreign nationals are granted temporary work status in the United States, as a form of indentured servitude—more on that later.)

Most respondents want the U.S. government to shut foreigners out completely to free up work for unemployed Americans. Why encourage American students to become technologists and foreigners to seek U.S. tech employment, they argue, when jobs are so scarce here?

All are fair points. The end game can't be to flood the domestic market with entry-level workers. The goal must be to create a thriving domestic market for IT innovation and career opportunity.
But let's also keep in mind that while tech unemployment is a painful fact of life for many Americans, it's not a permanent situation—unless we try to fix it with measures that will make matters worse. Any market that isn't constantly fed a steady diet of fresh talent and ideas is destined to wither away.
Math, science and engineering education isn't a spigot that can be turned off and on to irrigate the latest employment opportunity. It's a long-term investment in this country's future that requires promotion and management. The more smart, talented people we can prepare for tech professions, the more jobs they will create once they're in positions of entrepreneurship and authority.

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