Are we throwing in the towel on American workers?

February 7, 2013, 3:00 PM UTC
More H-1B visas for the tech industry

FORTUNE — Last week the nation’s jobless rate ticked back up to 7.9%, yet at Microsoft more than 6,000 jobs go begging. These are jobs that pay, on average, $104,000 for applicants with only a bachelor’s of science degree. “Great jobs,” notes Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith. No kidding.

Multiply that across America’s high-technology landscape and the total is tens of thousands of jobs requiring math, science and engineering skills that companies can’t fill—a good chunk of the 3.7 million job vacancies reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Whether those jobs should be reserved for Americans who someday may qualify—or farmed out to a ready-made pool of high-skilled foreigners—will be one of many pitched debates over the immigration reform legislation introduced last week.

It should also kick off a national conversation that starts with this question: Are we throwing in the towel on American workers? Taxpayers spend $18 billion on 47 duplicative job training programs across nine federal agencies. And despite a General Accounting Office report concluding they mostly don’t work, there’s still no leadership out of Congress or the White House to provide real pathways for Americans to qualify for jobs at Microsoft—or on down the employer food chain.

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The tech companies got their wish list with a bipartisan bill that raises the cap on H-1B visas from 65,000 to 115,00—a number that could go as high as 300,000 in future years if those visas are filled fast enough. Which is possible, since the pent-up demand to hire talented foreigners is huge. Smith predicts a repeat of 2008, when the allotment of visas was gobbled up on the first day. “In our industry a lot of companies didn’t exist or were much smaller back then,” he notes.

From the point of view of the tech companies, the increase makes urgent sense. Why shouldn’t U.S. companies — rather than their competitors — be able to reap the talent rewards of all those foreign students graduating from American universities? (Foreigners with post-graduate degrees will be exempted from all caps under the proposal.) And why should we encourage high-tech firms to move operations to, say, Canada because our immigration rules are too strict?

The senators sponsoring the bill — including Republicans Orrin Hatch and Marco Rubio, and Democrats Amy Klochubar and Chris Coons — say the reforms will help grow the economy. “It’ll help us attract more highly skilled workers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math,” said Rubio, “which will help our unemployed, underemployed or underpaid American workers find better jobs.”

Okay, but how are we enabling those unemployed and underemployed Americans to fill those jobs themselves? The bill includes a $1,000-per-visa fee that will fund a program to help states produce more students with science and math skills. But that’s for future workers. Moreover, the fund seemed tossed in as an after-thought — when its intent should be at the center of an urgent national conversation.

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For future workers, a fund guided by strong education reform leadership could be a start — if only a small one.

In an interview, Smith — whose leadership on the issue includes a program that assigns engineers to high school teachers — laid out the scope of the problem we face in preparing Americans to fill these well-paying 21st century jobs:

  • Of the approximately 42,000 American high schools, only 2,103 offer advanced placement courses in computer science. And computer science typically doesn’t count toward the core requirements required to graduate.
  • We’re losing potential students at the community college level, where fewer than a third actually finish the two-year degree in three years and career guidance is minimal–one counselor on average for every 700 students. These are students that could be trained for skilled utility and aerospace openings coming on line as the baby-boomers retire.
  • Public universities need to grow their computer science programs. Even at the University of Washington, right in Microsoft’s backyard, students who want to pursue that field of study are turned away because of lack of capacity.

In our conversation, Smith, who applauds the Senate bill, says he envisions a $5 billion fund, drawn from visa fees paid by sponsoring companies—combined with leadership from Washington to provide incentives to states to dramatically change their education systems. “Computer science is to the 21st century what physics was to the 20th century,” he says. “It’s basic, and the country hasn’t caught up to that fact. If we start in earnest in 2013 we could see results in 2015 or 2016.”

The fund in the Senate proposal won’t make much of a dent in Smith’s vision for a better-equipped future workforce—just $115 million if all of this year’s H-B1 visas were allocated at $1,000 a pop. Under that plan, the tech companies that have been clamoring to raise the visa cap are getting off cheap.

It’s Congress’s job to see that — just as it’s Congress’s job to retool those wasteful, and expensive, federal job training programs that are failing today’s workers. Otherwise, lawmakers and the White House stand guilty of buying into a new normal of stubbornly high employment—and millions more who have dropped out of the workforce altogether—even when U.S. companies have good jobs to offer.