While some of the recent announcements beat economists' forecasts, most of us can still feel the stagnation of the economy. The overall unemployment rate is moving at a snail's pace -- and not always in the right direction. Particularly troubling is the stubbornness of America's youth unemployment rate, which is still hovering over 16 percent. Even for those who do find jobs out of college in the past two years, more than 40 percent are working jobs that don't require a degree. More than 280,000 college graduates last year were working minimum-wage jobs, according to the Labor Department. We must begin to ask ourselves: What's keeping these hopeful workers from gainful employment?
The answer is education. A large number of the available jobs belong to the increasingly important technology sector, requiring specific technological or engineering training. Though 1.8 million students are set to graduate this year, only 16 percent will do so with degrees in science, math, or engineering, far less than their foreign counterparts. Looking at the current crop of college graduates, high-tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Intel are struggling to fill their rapidly expanding corporate rosters. As a result, they've naturally turned to the rest of the world to fill their needs.
Unfortunately, their hiring prospects are just as challenging when they turn abroad. Expanding companies have been limited by the federal government's current immigration policy, which awards just 65,000 high-skilled H-1B visas to prospective workers per year. Under a new plan being floated in the U.S. Senate by the so-called Gang of Eight, the number of these visas would increase to 110,000 per year.
Critics of the new plan cite increased risk for American engineers facing competition from foreign workers demanding lower salaries and benefits. Even with these additional 45,000 visas per year, these companies will still find themselves hard-pressed to find enough qualified workers to continue their expansion.
Last year the Silicon Valley area alone added 42,000 jobs, with the San Francisco Bay area adding 92,000. Last month in testimony to the U.S. Senate, Brad Smith, general counsel of Microsoft, addressed the problems his company, and others like it, are facing: "The U.S. economy is producing more high-skilled jobs than there are qualified people to fill them...This skills gap unquestionably is impeding our country's economic prosperity." The jobs are there; unfortunately for both companies and job seekers, the talent available isn't matching up.
While increasing high-skilled immigration will help fuel the exponential growth of Silicon Valley, the long-term solution must start at home. For many low-level tech jobs, a four-year degree is unnecessary: Retraining programs for the unemployed or underemployed would make for an easy entry point for millions of Americans still struggling to find good work. Many skills can be obtained in simple, quick, and inexpensive online courses, which can teach anything from simple coding to complex Web site design.
More importantly, however, we need to convince the next generation of Americans to pursue degrees that fit the changing world economy. One needs to look no further than the May report (PDF) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to see that the U.S. economy is far from reaching full employment.
Our economy is rapidly outgrowing its workforce, and it is slowing our growth and increasing economic disparity. While increasing certain immigration visas may be key to short-term development, only a dramatic change to train and educate our children with the latest technology skills is going to give us the long-term growth we expect to see.