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Utah's STEM problem
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Earlier this year, Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee came out as strong supporters of the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, a proposal focused specifically on America's shortage of high-skilled workers in science, technology, engineering and math — the STEM fields.

But the immigration debate has changed in Washington, and we need continued engagement and leadership from our state's U.S. senators to fully address this chronic crisis.

As head of a healthcare technology startup based in Sandy, I know firsthand the challenge of hiring highly educated software developers, engineers and other innovators. Positions often go unfilled for months, and my company has turned at times to the H-1B high-skilled visa program to hire foreign-born employees when we could not hire qualified U.S. citizens.

The stark truth is that too few American students are pursuing college degrees in STEM fields, including computer science.

American universities annually award about 40,000 bachelor's degrees in computer science, but an estimated 120,000 new jobs are created every year that require this degree.

The problem, however, begins well before college. Today, few American high school students study — or are even exposed to — computer science. In most states, including Utah, computer science only counts as an elective, not as a math or science class that fulfills a graduation requirement.

Even though information technology is a cornerstone of America's innovation economy, only 1 percent of all advanced-placement exams are taken in this field.

Because our nation has not adequately prepared young Americans to pursue STEM careers, technology companies scramble every year to apply for H-1B visas so that we can fill positions — and grow our businesses — with highly educated people from other countries. These individuals have often attended American universities, and they are eager to stay, innovate and contribute.

To address the skills and education gap in our workforce for the short term, we need to increase high-skilled immigration — and tie the number of visas to market demand. But for the long term, we need to address the root cause of this problem; namely, we must improve STEM education for American students.

The I-Squared Act, as it is known, is aimed at addressing the workforce crisis by linking high-skilled immigration directly to increased funding for U.S. STEM education.

Employers accessing these foreign-born workers would have paid higher fees for visas and green cards, and those fees would have been distributed to the states for STEM education. The act would have raised an estimated $500 million to $600 million annually for STEM initiatives, paid by businesses, not individual taxpayers.

Much of I-Squared has been incorporated into the much broader "Gang of Eight" comprehensive immigration reform bill. However, while the CIR proposal does increase H-1B visas, it does not adequately address the reason why we need the increase in the first place: educating enough students trained in STEM fields to fill the jobs in this rapidly-growing and crucial job sector. As of now, the bill falls far short of the robust STEM education funding that I-Squared envisioned.

Given that the "Gang of Eight" bill includes high-skilled immigration reform, despite its flaws it deserves the support of Hatch and Lee. While the regulatory burdens placed on businesses using the H-1B visa program should be eased, the increased number of visas— currently stuck at 1990 levels — is a step in the right direction.

American STEM education should not be forgotten as the immigration debate moves forward.

Utah has a strong technology sector that could be much stronger with dedicated funding for STEM initiatives. Our senators should support immigration reform, but also work to improve the bill by championing the I-Squared plan for STEM education.

Matt Berry is founder and CEO of Sandy-based mobile health startup Orca Health.

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