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House bill offers to ease Utah's tech pro shortage

Published August 10, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Back when the golden spike was pounded in at Promontory, completing the transcontinental railroad nearly 150 years ago, immigrant workers in Utah meant Irish and Chinese laborers who performed backbreaking work for meager wages. Later came the Greeks and Italians to do the hard labor of mining. Add in the pioneers, and Utah truly was built by immigrant labor.

Utah still needs workers from around the world, but today strong academic backgrounds mean more than strong backs. Utah has undergone a long but radical transformation from an economy based on mining and ranching to one based on programming and microchips.

That is why passage of a bill called the SKILLS Visa Act now moving through the U.S. House of Representatives is vital. This legislation will ease America's critical shortage of professionals with degrees in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields and computer science by raising the laughably low cap on work visas for immigrants with these qualifications.

The bill seeks to meet the demand for STEM workers by creating a STEM education fund to improve teaching of math and science in our K-12 schools. We must prepare and motivate more American kids to go to college and earn technical degrees. A quick look at Utah's technology sector confirms the need for the SKILLS Visa Act.

Today thousands of sophisticated companies from Novell to Ancestry.com have their headquarters or major operations in Provo and other Utah cities. My employer, Hewlett Packard, is just one of many that have been attracted by Utah's Western lifestyle and its growing stature as a technology center.

But growth, profits and job creation are stymied by archaic immigration laws that send the best and the brightest immigrant workers packing upon graduation, or bars them from entering in the first place.

Sadly, even the best colleges and universities — schools like Brigham Young University, Utah State and the University of Utah — aren't producing enough STEM-trained graduates. Our nation's higher-education system is producing barely a third of the graduates America needs in computer science alone. Only about one in 10 degrees awarded by Utah's colleges and universities are in STEM subjects.

But the problem starts well before college. Utah parents are committed to their children's educations, yet fewer than half of the state's eighth-graders score at proficiency levels on standardized math and science tests.

Utah's figures aren't drastically out of line with national averages. Taken together, they indicate a U.S. education system ill-prepared to produce the skilled workforce we need today and must rely on tomorrow. The result? Tech-centric companies need to recruit skilled employees from outside the U.S.

But this need collides with our dysfunctional immigration system. For more than two decades, the annual quota on the H-1B visas for highly skilled immigrants has been kept at 65,000, a number so inadequate that the entire allotment of 2013 visas was gobbled up in five days.

The SKILLS Visa Act is not a panacea. It does, however, offer practical solutions for stemming our critical shortage of STEM and computer science professionals while encouraging more of America's best and brightest to pursue degrees in these fields.

And in this time of tight government funding, the STEM education fund would be created at no cost to taxpayers. The fund would be financed from fees paid by employers applying for visas and green cards for skilled employees.

Both expansion of H-1B visas and creation of a STEM education fund would be responsible investments with short- and long-term gains. It's an investment that would help preserve America's global lead in technology innovation and boost Utah's status as one of America's hottest technology centers.

Daryl Acumen is senior manager of data analytics for Hewlett Packard in Provo and vice-chair of the Utah County Republican Party.