Why the U.S. Technology Work Force Needs the Asian Influence

Don Tennant
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As college graduation season unfolds, it would be fascinating to find out what percentage of graduates with academic honors in technology-related degree programs in the United States are either foreign nationals from Asia, recent immigrants from Asia, or the children of recent immigrants from Asia. It's probably not going too far out on a limb to predict that the percentage will be disproportionately high. If that is indeed the case, we're faced with a choice: Do we summon the courage to ask ourselves why that's the case, or do we ignore it so we don't have to come to grips with it?


Let me note at the outset that for the purpose of this discussion, I'm considering India to be part of Asia. So can the overall high academic performance of students from India and the rest of Asia be attributed to simply being smarter than their non-Asian contemporaries? I don't think any such argument could be taken seriously. Rather, my own observation, after having lived nearly a third of my life in Asia and observed Asian culture nearly all of my adult life, is that Asian students come from families that tend to place a greater emphasis on education and studiousness in general, and high academic achievement in particular, than the families of Western students.


I would argue that that influence is a very positive one, and I can speak from personal experience in doing so. Since our focus here is on technology, I'll mention the two of my four kids who have pursued educations and careers in that field - my two sons, Don and Dan.


Don graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2003 with a degree in computer science, ninth in his class with a 4.0 GPA. That earned him a full scholarship to attend Cambridge University in the UK, where he received a master's degree in computer science. A decorated veteran of service in the Persian Gulf, he's now a senior consultant for IBM.


Dan graduated magna cum laude from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts in 2009, with a double major in interactive media and game development (IMGD) and professional writing. When he graduated he was recruited directly into MIT Lincoln Laboratory, where he's winding down his service to return to WPI. He was recently awarded a fellowship to attend the IMGD master's degree program there, and to serve as a research assistant.


Don and Dan grew up in Asia. I have no doubt that the influence of the Asian work ethic and the priority placed on academic excellence was a major factor in their success. They expected nothing less than excellence of themselves, and they worked tirelessly to achieve it. So how can students and workers in the United States who don't have the opportunity to live in Asia be exposed to this ethic and be challenged by its influence? Part of the answer lies in a statement released on Thursday by four members of the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.


That statement is titled, "The Great Debate: America Needs a 21st Century Immigration Policy." The four writers were Steve Case, CEO of Revolution; John Doerr, Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; Paul Otellini, CEO of Intel; and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. They said there are three things we need to do to overcome our stagnation in developing a highly-educated work force.


First, they said, we need to invest in homegrown talent that's educated in the STEM disciplines:

The U.S. education system must be improved, top to bottom, so that our most precious resource-our children-can compete in the increasingly global world economy. Statistically our K-12 students are falling farther behind students in Korea, China and elsewhere in the physical sciences. We can and must do better.

Second, we need to allow U.S. employers to recruit and retain the world's brightest talent:

We need a pro-growth based green card system to replace the current system that is plagued with years-long backlogs. Waiting a decade or more during the H-1B specialty visa and green card process demoralizes the next great American immigrant Nobel laureate. More of them are returning to their home countries, like China and India, and driving new scientific breakthroughs and innovations there.

Third, we need to use the green card as an incentive to keep highly educated foreign talent here:

We should staple a green card to every advanced diploma in critical fields to keep foreign-born students graduating from a U.S. university or college here in America, working for our future. Today foreign nationals account for 50% of master's degrees and 70% of Ph.D. degrees in electrical and electronic engineering in the U.S. Yet, our antiquated immigration laws numerically limit the numbers of these individuals, by the thousands, from entering our country annually. What kind of strategy is it to train the world's best and brightest in our great universities-and then require them to leave?

Of course there will be those who argue that the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness is just an arm of an elaborate conspiracy to throw Americans out of work and import cheap labor from overseas. So be it. The fact remains that U.S. students and workers need the opportunity to compete directly against the best and brightest from around the world in order to raise our bar of excellence far higher than it is now. The recommendations of the President's Council would help us accomplish that. Anyone who has played sports knows that you play your best game when you're matched up against your toughest opponents. It's time for us to demonstrate the fortitude to do that. It's time for us to raise our game.

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