America's children are falling behind the rest of the world in math and science. In a worldwide student assessment conducted in 2003, the United States ranked 28th in math and 24th in science literacy among 40 countries. Congress got the message--education and employment bills aimed at bolstering the technical workforce are flying around Capitol Hill.
"To maintain our growth and standard of living, we've got to be constantly moving to better education and high-tech jobs," says Phil Bond, president of the Information Technology Association of America. "It's not a red-state, blue-state issue."
Spurred by President Bush and others, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., this year introduced a spending bill that was followed up by an authorization bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and co-sponsored by Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. The bills would increase spending on several educational grant programs and initiatives, including grants to schools to create hands-on technology learning programs and increased funding for math and science education through the National Science Foundation.
Another route is to bring in outsiders to fill jobs the U.S. workforce can't. Foreigners hired for skilled positions have become talking points for congressional aspirants and fodder for Government Accountability Office reports to point out misuse of H-1B visas or call for raising caps. The number of H-1B visas that can be granted in a given year to bring in technology workers has been fluctuating; this year's 65,000 limit was met only two months after the government began accepting requests.
Generally speaking, the IT industry wants to raise H-1B visa caps and has support from several members of Congress, including separate bills from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. The rub is that immigration reform is controversial, with Democrats worried about union reaction and Republicans about national security. None of the proposed cap raises has been approved.
"There's support for increasing the number of H-1Bs, but it's all tied up in the big immigration packages," says Joe Tasker, ITAA's senior VP of government affairs, who's unconvinced there will be any movement on this front soon.
Although there's bipartisan support for technology education and H-1B reform legislation, they have yet to pass. Says Tasker, "Part of the problem is that it all sounds good, and then you try to figure out how to pay for it, and the numbers are pretty big."
Illustrations by Tadeusz Majewski