WASHINGTON — There is recurring controversy in Washington about whether the United States should relax its immigration laws to feed the insatiable demand of the computer industry for technical workers.
The industry needs at least 300,000 more of these workers than are available in US job markets. This is on top of more than 100,000 who have been arriving annually over the last decade for six-year stints, after which they are supposed to go home.
Organized labor opposes admitting foreign workers (in this case, mostly from India and China) on the grounds that they would take jobs that otherwise would be filled by Americans. High-tech employers say there are no Americans to do the jobs.
If this were about menial labor, the unions would have a point.
These people do not flip hamburgers at McDonald's or make up beds in Holiday Inns. These are mathematicians and engineers, designers of computers, their software, and other innovations.
A Texas Instruments official tells of offering an engineer a Porsche to come to work. TI wants 1,600 more engineers than it can hire even with inducements like that.
Given the clout of the high-tech industry on Capitol Hill, in terms not only of the jobs it creates in many congressional districts but also of the campaign contributions it dispenses in even more, the industry is a good bet to get the relief it seeks.
But this debate ought not to be about immigration; it ought to be about education.
The American public school system is not producing the people required to keep high tech humming. If high tech doesn't hum, neither does the American economy. Worse yet, neither does the US position of world leadership.
We cannot sustain this position unless we do it ourselves; foreigners may not always be available to do it for us.
The key to solving our shortage of ultra-skilled labor is in solving the puzzle of why more Americans do not choose these lucrative and challenging career paths.
One reason may be that the public school system is not producing enough Americans who are well-grounded in the intellectually rigorous but ultimately rewarding hard sciences, especially math and physics.
This leaves them unprepared to pursue advanced technology in college.
The number of Americans receiving bachelor's degrees in electrical engineering dropped 45 percent between 1987 and 1997. Many of them did not pursue graduate degrees because entering salaries were so attractive they preferred immediate employment.
We need more college freshmen who have already had calculus and advanced-placement physics.
For that, we need better-trained public school teachers. The prospects for getting these anytime soon are not promising.
President Bill Clinton repeats his mantra about adding 100,000 more teachers.
He has not said anything about how he is going to get them. Does he think they would come running if he went out in front of the White House and blew a whistle?
They have got to be trained and inspired, themselves, before they can teach and inspire their students.
Wannabe-president George W. Bush repeats just as endlessly his mantra about handing out private school vouchers to every kid whose parents are dissatisfied with his public school.
Mr. Bush has not said what he would do if his voucher program gets so many takers there is no room for them in private schools.
We'll get a solution faster if leaders of both parties - and voters - accept the hard fact that this means higher taxes.
Gimmicks will not do. Quick fixes will not last. There must be massive public investment in physical and human resources - buildings, libraries, computers, laboratories, and more (and better-paid) teachers.
California has a proposition on the ballot this year to give each of its 6.6 million students, in both public and private schools a voucher for $4,000.
If each student took it, that would be $26.4 billion. In 1997, California spent $34 billion on its public schools. Such an increase would transform education in our largest state.
There is something else wrong with relying on foreign mathematicians and engineers.
To the extent we do this, we contribute to a brain drain in the third world. Every Indian who works in Silicon Valley is one less Indian working in Bombay.
Since President Harry Truman proposed his Point Four program in 1949 to transfer American know-how to developing countries, a basic part of US foreign policy has been to improve the technical capacity of the third world.
We ought not now encourage a reverse flow.
*Pat M. Holt writes on foreign affairs.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society