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Are U.S. Tech Pros Second-Rate?

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As many of you know, I have taken no little space in these columns talking about the need to educate and train American computer and technology professionals (rather than export our tech jobs abroad or import foreign workers), but recent remarks by one Bill Gates have brought up another interesting angle.

The March 17 issue of Computerworld reported that the Microsoft chairman asserted before Congress recently that U.S. companies may lose jobs if they can’t bring in “world-class engineers” from abroad via more H-1B visas. That begs the question: Is there something wrong with the U.S.-based engineers we have?

According to Mr. Gates, as quoted in the piece, “These top people are going to be hired. It’s just a question of what country they’re hired in.”

Yes, that seems rather obvious. But the 800-pound gorilla lurking behind the notion that we must bring such professionals in from abroad is that American IT pros just can’t hack it, and that “world-class” engineers either don’t exist or are in critically short supply in the U.S.

I find all these statements difficult to believe, but maybe that’s just because I don’t want to see the country I love besmirched. One reader who responded to my blog on a similar topic suggested that, indeed, the U.S. educational system has in recent years been turning out graduates who feel good about themselves (read self-esteem), but can’t write a coherent sentence or balance a checkbook.

I had a hard time disagreeing with that, having seen the vicious assault on the English language that takes place in some of the resum?s and cover letters that cross my path.

My reader, who identified himself as an insurance agent, provided further evidence, noting that, “I’ve been testing job applicants for 15 years, none of whom have been able to successfully answer this question: What is 10 percent of 75? Documented results show 175 high school and college graduates can’t do it. NOT ONE. NADA. ZIPPO.”

And some of these people are supposed to be college graduates!

Then again, they are probably not engineering or computer science graduates, so I might be persuaded to give them a pass in terms of the current discussion.

I wonder, though, just what constitutes a “world class” engineer, and why we seem to have so few of them. Yes, I know that current graduates in computer science are at a low in the U.S., but surely the “world-class” people would have graduated some years ago, now having proved their mettle and gained valuable experience in the real world.

Further, I feel compelled to add that I have met some extremely capable and impressive IT people right here in the American insurance sector–and we are not an industry known for being on technology’s cutting edge.

Perhaps the key to understanding why Mr. Gates should be petitioning Congress for more access for foreign workers lies in a fact that the Microsoft whiz apparently declined to address–namely that Microsoft and other companies could pay such workers substantially less than U.S. citizens.

While I can understand Mr. Gates’ and others’ desire to import cheap labor, I really don’t get why an American company would not want to grow its own talent. I also don’t understand why American companies would want to turn their backs on our citizens who need work.

Is this what is meant when we hear the phrase “global economy”? Are we saying that the dollar (or some stronger currency unit) overrides all questions of national interest? Are we saying, ultimately, that our people don’t matter–or perhaps that they should move to Bangalore if they want jobs?

You know, despite the starry-eyed ravings of the late John Lennon, we really can’t “imagine there’s no countries.” The delusional notion of “one world” is still relegated to the realm of fantasy, which, ironically, is the part of the name of a later album by Lennon.

Reality tells us that we do indeed have a country, and that is a good thing when the nation truly protects the best interests of its citizens. Is it unreasonable, then, to suggest that our corporations should also be devoted to our best interests?

This is why it is critical that American government and American industry get their heads and their hearts together and start doing things that benefit our economy and our people, even if the bottom line will be slightly less inflated in the short term.

In the longer view, such an investment in our own workers pays off in terms of quality outcomes produced by American citizens. Such results, in turn, accrue to the benefit of our U.S. companies.

But, maybe I’m just being starry-eyed myself.