Sunday June 16, 2013

That high-tech American businesses must import foreign workers to fill programming and engineering jobs is an accepted reality that should upset Americans more than it appears to, especially with unemployment still high. Give Google, Microsoft and other prominent firms credit for demanding that Massachusetts do something about it. The specifics of their proposal can be debated, but there is no disputing its essential merit.

The executives were on Beacon Hill Wednesday to urge that computer science classes be made a requirement as early as eighth grade and a statewide curriculum for technology instruction be created. South Carolina is the only state in the union to require such classes. The business leaders also propose that computing questions be added to the state’s standardized tests. The firms have formed the Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network (MassCAN), which also includes Oracle, Intel and the organizations comprising the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, to promote this ambitious program.

Business leaders in Berkshire County have said that good, high-paying jobs are going wanting because there are not enough qualified local residents to fill them. This is a problem that Berkshire Community College and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts are addressing, but preparation must begin at younger and younger ages to keep up with schools in Europe and Asia.


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State public school systems are making this effort to varying degrees -- with Massachusetts playing catch-up ball in recent years -- but the schools run into roadblocks that also confront the executives’ proposal.

Technology is one of the few growth areas of the state and national economy, and according to federal labor reports, 150,000 jobs related to computer science and mathematics must be filled annually. American colleges and universities, however, are only producing 100,000 graduates annually who are qualified for these jobs. This forces these companies to recruit overseas, which requires them to appeal to Washington to increase the number of visas open to skilled foreign workers. These companies would rather hire from the nation’s work pool and these are jobs Americans want to have. But as Chris Stephenson, executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association, told the Boston Globe, there is a "profound disconnect" between the available technology jobs and the preparation for those jobs on the part of students.

Erasing that disconnect is costly, however, and even though MassCAN says it would contribute to the cause it would still cost millions of dollars in new technology at a time that the state is scrambling to pay for the education programs it has now. In his budget plan, President Obama has proposed $3.1 billion to finance increased science and technology instruction, including the hiring of 100,000 teachers in the field, but there is no chance of that plan getting past congressional Republicans. The MassCAN proposal would also require more standardized testing in the schools when Massachusetts is already too reliant upon the MCAS exams.

In the Globe, former Massachusetts secretary of education Paul Reveille suggested establishing a computer sciences pilot program in a few schools (perhaps one in the Berkshires?) to reveal weaknesses and devise solutions, rather than institute such a massive project all at once. Should it succeeds at this level, then other school systems will join in, creating a momentum from the ground up that can’t be established legislatively. This is a good idea whose time will come.