Sometimes it seems like the United States has the market on shortsightedness.
Since President Clinton's State of the Union address, conservatives have loudly scoffed at the president's plan to continue wiring schools and libraries for the Internet, and training teachers how to effectively use technology in the classroom. They again proclaim (whine?) that the market will naturally close the digital divide. Someday. Be patient.
But the technology companies aren't patient: They need high-tech workers yesterday. The "good" economy is making it difficult to find qualified workers in all sorts of industries. But, being that the techcos take credit for the booming economy, their demands are ringing the loudest. According to the Associated Press, the Computing Technology Industry Association says the United States needs 268,000 high-tech workers, which it says costs American businesses some $4.5 billion a year in lost productivity.
The answer? Let's just say California's m/billionaires smile on certain types of immigration -- the kind that helps them make more money. The technology industry has successfully lobbied Congress to increase the number of temporary visas, the six-year H-1B visas, to international workers with college degrees. In response, Congress almost doubled the H-1Bs from 65,000 in 1998 to 115,000 both in 1999 and 2000.
But the tech companies are running out of visas. Now they want what's called "T" visas that are only awarded to high-tech immigrants -- workers with a master's degree or Ph.D in science, engineering, computer science or math, and who will earn $60,000 or more. Legislation to create the temporary T visa is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
This sounds like a decent idea, and maybe it is in a management-by-crisis industry. These companies are big deals, they need workers and, by God, the federal government better find a way to ship them in.
The problem, of course, is that we have plenty of potential high-tech workers right here in this country who could use the money and the opportunity. But they need training, mentoring, encouragement, resources -- and perhaps a leg up or two from the federal government to get there, in addition to private investment. It's astounding that some lawmakers believe it's OK to dole out high-tech corporate welfare, but not to invest in poor communities that will, in turn, produce the valued high-tech laborers of tomorrow. Duh.
Of course, the tech companies knew this shortage was coming -- it's been brewing for years. To their credit, some techcos are mounting efforts -- and joining together with folks like Jesse Jackson -- to bring the technology culture to low-income neighborhoods such as Harlem and the Mississippi Delta just as the poverty gap is expanding even further. Too many others, though, are punting -- when they need workers, they'll just order them from overseas. No need to appoint people of color to their boards, actively recruit and train minority managers, or vocally support the government's creative efforts to wire schools.
Interestingly, the tech companies may be screwing many of their foreign laborers while they're at it. The problem, argues the Immigration Reform Coalition (www.immigrationreform.com), is that Silicon Valley just wants to increase the pool of temporary visas, rather than use some 50,000 unused work-related green cards available to them each year. That is, the tech industry wants to bring in temporary workers from abroad for less money, hire them temporarily, then send them home and replace them, the coalition says. Sounds like what Microsoft was doing to U.S. workers until the courts stopped its scam.
The Jan. 10, 2000, Tech Week (techweek.com) tells of a foreign worker hired by a now-failing semiconductor company. As an H1-B visa holder, he's stuck, unable to pursue a job at a competitive firm. "H1-B holders are essentially indentured to their employers, since their legal right to remain and work in the United States depends on their employment. This distortion of the labor market and obstacle to true immigration serves no national interest," says the Immigration Reform Web site.
We must get technology into the hands of all Americans. Then this problem will solve itself.