Last fall, when Microsoft started leading the tech sector’s bid to increase the number of foreign engineers and scientists it could hire, the company proposed that the industry pay a steep price: Companies would give the government $10,000 per H-1B visa, provided the money be used to fund nationwide efforts to build science and math capacity in U.S. schools.
But when an immigration bill arrived on the Senate floor, the tech industry got the foreign workers it wanted — for a song. A new $1,000 fee, which would apply to green cards for international graduate students but not H-1B visas, would be dedicated to a STEM fund (for science, technology, engineering, and math) for schools, including some colleges.
At an estimated $1.4 billion stretched over 10 years, that’s not a huge commitment from business leaders, who repeatedly say their biggest worry is a U.S. education system that fails to train workers for 21st-century jobs. (The Microsoft proposal would have directed $500 million a year to schools.) The high-tech industry is projected to produce the second-highest number of jobs in the U.S. (behind health care), and shortages of qualified candidates for high-paying positions continue to grow.
Yet American teens rank behind more than a dozen other industrialized countries in science and math. Only a fraction of U.S. high schools offer advanced placement in computer science. And our women remain a vastly untapped talent pool in the sciences. (Note: Some 40% of India’s engineers are female; nearly all H-1B visas go to men, mostly from India and China.)
Raising the H-1B visa cap addresses the real short-term needs of companies that complain they can’t find qualified Americans. And the Senate bill’s plan to get green cards — and thereby permanent residency — into the hands of more international graduate students is a good thing. It effectively produces more engineers and scientists who will live here, raise families, pay taxes, and start businesses. That’s a better solution than borrowing foreign workers on H-1B visas. “We intend to tell every international engineering student, ‘Don’t take a job from a company that won’t give you a green card,’ ” warns Russell Harrison, legislative representative for the engineering society IEEE-USA. Like other H-1B critics, Harrison likens that program to indentured servitude; foreign workers can’t leave their sponsoring companies during a nearly seven-year visa process. And he argues that the control employers enjoy under the H-1B program provides a disincentive to hire Americans. With green cards, he says, “American workers at least are competing on a level playing field.”
Still, the immigration bill raises the question: Where’s the mass commitment by industry and Congress to grow more scientists and engineers at home? Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) was behind an early push to raise the STEM-fund dedicated fee from $500 to $1,000, and says she hopes STEM-dedicated dollars will increase as the legislation proceeds. “This STEM fund is a sign from the federal government that we need to up our game,” says Klobuchar. “I would like to do even more.” She will be reintroducing legislation from last session to double to 200 the number of STEM-focused high schools in the U.S.
As Minnesota’s senior senator, Klobuchar has watched up close as vacancies have grown in occupations from high-end engineering to high-skilled welding: Her state enjoys a breathtakingly low unemployment rate of 5.3%. But U.S. students aren’t equipped for the openings. “We need to get more kids on paths where there are jobs,” she tells me.
Sadly, that’s not going to happen in this immigration debate. The Senate bill, like parallel efforts in the House, will live or die on heated exchanges over border security and paths to citizenship for the 12 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S. And while it makes sense to keep more foreign scientists and engineers here in the U.S. — rather than taking their American degrees abroad to become global competitors — isn’t it time for Congress and industry to start focusing on our students and workers at home?
This story is from the July 1, 2013 issue of Fortune.