STEM education and immigration reform are opposite sides of the same coin

Innovators.  Leaders. These are words that come to mind when many think of America and, in particular, our information technology industry. With increased global competition, America’s innovation and leadership position is at risk. In order to reclaim it we must address two separate but intertwined issues --  science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education programs and immigration reform.

These issues are on opposite sides of the same coin and both address the overwhelming need our country has for the human capital that underpins national innovation and competitiveness.     

Heads: Building the workforce of tomorrow

Our country’s future is dependent on the success of today’s youth. To help them succeed, we must have a strong education system. Unfortunately, we have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to STEM education. Today, the U.S. ranks 23rd in mathematics and 31st in science. Yet, a report from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program entitled “The Hidden STEM Economy” states that as of 2011, 26 million U.S. jobs -- 20% of all jobs -- require a high level of knowledge in any one STEM field.

We need to rethink our curriculums, from elementary school to high school. Our education programs need to prepare students with necessary skills to succeed in a global workforce where technology skills are a growing requirement. As such, curriculums must improve the focus on math, science, computer science and engineering skills. I feel strongly that no child should graduate from high school without some level of proficiency in math and science. High school curriculums should also emphasize real-world learning, giving students access to STEM leaders through after-school and summer programs. Learning from today’s leaders can help create a sense of excitement around a career in one of these essential fields.


Because our education system is state-run, every state capital across the country needs to embrace and adopt STEM programs to make meaningful change. With the unhurried pace at which our governments  sometimes move, I fear that it will take many, many years -- even decades -- to reverse the erosion that has already occurred.

What we need is a societal change led by parents and the community at large. Parents need to understand why STEM skills are so important to their kids, our country and our economy.  They need to encourage their children to do well in math and science.  Communities and educators need to recognize and celebrate the success of these students. I remember a time in the African-American community when it was an accomplishment to be the first child in a family to go to college. Families were deeply involved in ensuring the next generation went to college, as was the larger community within which those families lived. They all supported the children and made sure they were on the right path. We need to create the same societal push encouraging children to pursue STEM-related degrees and careers.

Tails: Immigration reform

Increasing our focus on STEM education will certainly help us build a pipeline of future talent. However, we have an immediate need for talent to drive innovation in the technology industry and fill today’s STEM jobs. Solving that challenge calls for a more progressive stance towards immigration.

As my friend and former Intel CEO Paul Ottellini likes to say, we should “attach a green card to every diploma.” We need to allow foreign-born graduates of U.S. universities to remain in the U.S. and join our workforce. America’s technology companies need access to the brightest minds from around the world to stay competitive.

According to TechAmerica, one of every four scientists and engineers in the United States is foreign-born. We can’t afford to lose these talented individuals to other countries. Yet, under our current immigration policies, we do. We must move forward with reform if we are to successfully compete in the global marketplace.

To accomplish that, we need Congress to stop linking the issue of immigration reform with the challenge surrounding border patrol. We need to separate the two conversations and put immigration reform in the right context. This is an issue that is focused on the competitiveness of our economy and maintaining our leadership position in IT. It is about ensuring we have the right pool of talent for our workforce.

Over the past 50 years technology innovations have created new products and services, spurred the emergence of new markets and driven productivity improvements for businesses and consumers.  And, no country in the world has contributed more to the innovations in IT than ours. Getting the right STEM education programs and the right immigration policies in place are critical for to the long-term success of the industry -- and the country overall.  

Heads or tails, we win.  Heads and tails, we win big!

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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