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Updated Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 07:04 AM

No shortage of ideas from readers on importing high-tech workers

By Jerry Large
Seattle Times staff columnist

Readers had a lot to say about two recent columns on importing high-tech workers, and those comments reflect the often-conflicting tangle of issues the idea raises.

I wrote about the push by large tech companies for the federal government to expand the number of highly educated workers from other countries that companies could hire to work in the U.S., especially in computer science and engineering. The companies say U.S. schools aren’t turning out enough of the top-tier talent they need.

This is one of the areas of the country where high-tech companies have the greatest presence and impact, and Microsoft has been among the leaders of firms lobbying for more slots of what are called H-1B visas.

It’s important to hear many voices because the intersections and effects of immigration, hiring and education policies have such broad impact.

For a number of readers, it came down to getting what you pay for. As a reader from Kent said, “Business leaders cannot have it both ways; low taxes and an educated work force.”

An educator retired from the Bothell-based Northshore School District said the companies that are the biggest complainers, instead of trying to avoid Washington taxes, should pay up for education and establish programs that would produce the graduates they need. “Hmmm, working together, what a concept,” she wrote.

And from another retired educator: “How about a column that explains how these same Washington businesses who criticize our students and our public-education system are the ones benefiting from billions of dollars in tax cuts ... and they want more.”

My colleagues, Danny Westneat and Brier Dudley, have both written about that. As far as I can tell, corporate tax breaks only rarely serve the public interest.

A man who said he’d risen through the ranks at Boeing from drafting in the engineering department to management, and who raised six children, said maybe schools need to sort students onto different tracks. He said tech-savvy students are hindered by having to learn all the other stuff required to graduate:

“It occurs to me that perhaps we need to change our focus in public education from high-school graduation for all and the dilution of the curriculum, to a two- or three-track approach similar to some European countries.” Some students would get AP (advanced placement) curriculum and some, who wouldn’t be expected to finish 12 years of schooling, would get more basic instruction.

Don’t some schools do that already? I wish they wouldn’t.

A reader who described himself as an IT vet, said it’s not the mission of the schools to produce specialists. School, he said, “gives you a solid background to build on.”

That’s my idea of school, especially K-12 education. It should give all students the foundation to build whatever future fits best, and the basics for negotiating life and being a good citizen. That means, at a minimum, being able to communicate, being exposed to history, economics, science, the arts and knowing how to work with numbers.

Several readers pointed to examples of schools and programs aimed at preparing more students for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers.

One said Rainier Beach High School in Seattle, “reopened a mothballed machine shop last fall to provide a new manufacturing curriculum called Core Plus. ... It is the first step in what we hope will grow into an aerospace, science and technology skill center for the Seattle schools.”

A parent touted Cleveland High School’s STEM program, and a student wanted people to know about his school, Aviation High School in Des Moines.

And a couple of legislators sent me information on a bill that would, among other things, let AP computer-science classes fulfill math/science graduation requirements, set up a competitive grant to fund computer-science classes and create a computer-science workforce-shortage task force.

Some responses took opposing positions on the question of whether there really is a shortage of workers in computer science and engineering.

One said companies just want to hire cheap “foreign slaves.” An immigrant wrote that he was not cheap labor, but was hired at $150,000 a year because that is the salary his abilities justified.

A preschool teacher and mom said she read the first column thinking about her son who “has loved math since first grade.” Her husband works in the computer field and her son is waiting to see if he will be admitted to the University of Washington where he hopes to study computer science.

So she’s wondering whether there will be room for him now, and whether there will be a job for him at Microsoft when he graduates in a few years.

That big tangle of issues ultimately comes down to individual lives and aspirations, and to whose interests will rise to the top. The companies will see to their interests, and sometimes that overlaps with the interests of the broader society.

We want to help in those cases, but not to the point of twisting public policy and damaging other important interests, such as providing all children a strong education wherever their interests may lie and making sure the costs of education are shared appropriately.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com

Twitter @jerrylarge


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