Immigration and the Undesirables

I’m probably a bit late to the game with this post, as the talk about immigration reform seems to have died down, but the problem hasn’t gone away, so here goes. Immigration is a huge topic, but I’m going to focus on the tech side of things.

Technology related companies have been very vocal about their desire for immigration reform. The problem is that there aren’t enough skilled technology workers in the US to meet labor demand, so it is argued the best way to boost labor supply is to import skilled workers from other countries. In other words, the current pool of unemployed in the US is effectively unemployable in the tech sector. How’s that to boost your spirits? “You know, not only will we not hire you, but you’re so bad that we’d rather get laws changed so we can import a worker from another country to fill this job.” What would you call that, a “geek slap”?

Honestly, I have no problem with importing workers. People are just another asset businesses employ in order to function and countries should be able to engage in the free trade of their people just as they do their goods, services, and natural resources. Ignoring politics, what’s the difference between hiring someone that lives down the street versus someone that lives halfway around the world? There is no difference. If the world were one big country, we wouldn’t give it a second thought.

But importing skilled workers to meet labor demand is a short-term, narrowly focused solution to a much larger, longer-term problem. Even if the US could import tomorrow all of the skilled tech people it thinks it needs, what’s to be done with all of the “undesirables”? Are they to be educated and trained? Ignored and left to fend for themselves? Or perhaps we could enter into a bilateral trade agreement whereby, in exchange for each skilled worker imported to the US, we export a handful of our undesirables. After all, what’s undesirable to one country is likely to be a treasure to another.

Stemming (pun intended) from the technology labor problem has been a greater focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math, which are all directly related, by the way) education and training. Much of the focus has been on younger generations, guiding them to these fields and/or better supporting students that are already genuinely interested. And that is a good solution, I think, that will help in the future when these kids are finally old enough to be legally employed, but we also need to do something about the “older” folks (in tech, I think that’s anyone over the age of 12), most of whom have likely spent their working lives in other disciplines, but would like to transition into the STEM world. Not only are these people already skilled at being employees, but they can also bring valuable non-tech insights that would compliment their newfound technological knowhow.

Certainly there are great education efforts being made to get people trained in STEM, largely only possible because of technology. Some great examples are Khan Academy, Codecademy, and things like Massively Open Online Cources offered by accredited universities. Education probably hasn’t changed this much since the formation of written language. But I think we need to expedite the process. Just as the first dotcom bubble of the late 1990s/early 2000s expedited the development of so many technologies we take for granted today, a similar level of investment in STEM education for young and old alike could transform the technology world yet again.