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Immigration and Education Are Necessary to Build a Strong Workforce

There are, as far as I know, only two strategies available to countries that want to develop the kind of talent needed to enter the front ranks of nations providing broadly shared prosperity to their people: education and immigration.  Most of the countries already in the front ranks have used the education strategy.  One country—Israel—has used the immigration strategy.  One country—Canada—has used both, though Australia pursued both with success until recently.  The United States appears to have abandoned both strategies.

Israel is an interesting example. The tiny nation is a technological powerhouse, particularly in digital and defense technologies, the home to many start-ups that went on to provide core components of the technology we associate with a number of the United States' most prominent high-tech companies.  But its schools are mediocre.  How did they do it?  With immigration.  From the moment of its founding, it aggressively recruited highly educated Jewish people born in Europe and Russia fleeing the Nazis and the Soviet governments.  When these folks were being educated, Eastern European and Soviet Union schools were among the best in the world in mathematics and science.  The problem Israel now faces is that the supply of highly educated immigrants is dwindling and Israel must now figure out how to greatly improve their public education system to maintain the level of talent that they earlier imported.

Canada is a very instructive case.  The country has one of the most successful education systems in the world, as measured by their performance on OECD's PISA surveys.  It also has one of the most successful immigration programs in the world, mainly because Canada is among the most welcoming countries to immigrants with high education and skill levels.  This has made Canada one of the most multicultural countries on the face of the earth and I know of no city in North America as multi-cultural as Toronto.  Canada is, of course, the most important trading partner for the United States, and its economy is doing very well indeed.

And then we come to the United States. I came across a short piece a few days ago by James Pethokoukis titled "How can the U.S. be a global innovation leader despite mediocre global test scores?" The global test scores the headline writer was referring to are this country's scores on the OECD PISA survey of the performance of students in over 70 countries in mathematics, science, reading and collaborative problem solving.  Pethokoukis points out, as so many have pointed out before him, that students in the U.S., on average, score right in the middle of the pack, behind more than a score of other countries. 

Pethokoukis concludes that the United States will never get the talent that it needs from native-born Americans.  He is saying, in effect, that we need to adopt the Israeli strategy of importing our talent from abroad. 

To make his case, he shows us a chart.  The chart tells us that about 43 percent of the people employed in the Silicon Valley in the tech industry in 2015 were born abroad.  Years ago, at the end of the tech boom in the 90s, the Financial Times reported that more than a third of the people in the top positions in the tech industry in Silicon Valley were born abroad.  Many of them were from India.  So was a very large fraction of the faculty of the electrical engineering departments in American engineering schools that were supplying engineers of all nationalities to our high-tech industry. 

There are still a lot of students from other countries—particularly India and China—in our engineering schools.  But today we see a big difference.  Instead of staying in the United States to join our engineering school faculties or the staff of our high-tech firms, these graduates are heading back to their country of origin, which is welcoming them with open arms.  When very large numbers of people from other countries came to get educated in our best engineering schools and then stayed, they did so because the opportunities in their own countries were dismal.  That is no longer true and they are eager to take their newly acquired skills back home. 

You would think that we would be doing everything in our power to keep them here by offering them green cards as soon as they completed their education and training, but the opposite is true. We have been busy erecting barriers to their continued stay in the United States.  And, the icing on the cake, we are also busy putting up barriers for talented engineers elsewhere in the world who wish to emigrate to the United States.  

Mr. Pethokoukis wants to persuade us that it is no use counting on our schools to produce the talent we need; we should instead turn to immigration policy to get the job done.

I, for one, am holding my head in my hands.  The top tech firms are now offering a king's ransom to highly qualified technical graduates.  That is because we seem to be unable to educate enough highly skilled Americans to do the work and are not willing take in the highly qualified immigrants who could do the job. 

Mr. Pethokoukis is right.  Our record on the domestic education front is dismal.  As judged by PISA, our record in science education is mediocre and our record in mathematics is worse.  And, it turns out that our record on immigration is even worse than that.

We should not want to be like Israel and give up on our schools. We are far larger than Israel and cannot possibly create the supply of talent we need in this country only by importing it. If we want America to be great again, we had better find a way to do a much better job of educating our children.

But neither can we give up on immigration.  The case of Canada shows that it is possible both to have a first-rate education system and a high rate of immigration and use both to grow and develop our talent pool.  What, exactly, are we waiting for?

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