OPINION: Filling America’s Talent Gap

(Tribune News Service/TNS) -

When the topic is immigration, Democrats and Republicans alike continue to focus almost entirely on a single question: what to do about the millions of low-skilled immigrants — mostly from Latin America — who are in the U.S. illegally.

While this certainly needs to be addressed, the economic slowdown in Europe — and to a lesser degree that in China — raises another important question: What can and should the U.S. do to attract more well-educated young workers to the U.S. from overseas, where they could help us fill thousands of technical jobs that now go begging?

Let’s be clear: Unfilled jobs don’t enhance our economy. To the contrary, they’re a drag. And despite the large number of Americans still looking for full-time employment, many companies — including some of the biggest names in technology — are still having problems filling certain positions.

Microsoft alone reported some 6,000 tech vacancies in a recent white paper on the need to develop a “National Talent Strategy.” So why not fill these jobs with eager newcomers from abroad? It would boost our economy, creating additional jobs for U.S. workers in the process.

This is not a substitute for home-grown talent. We urgently need to expand and upgrade vocational education in the United States. But this won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, many companies can’t find enough qualified people to fill the technology jobs they have available.

But there are plenty of possible candidates overseas, many of whom are proficient, if not fluent, in English, and some of whom have studied in the United States only to be sent home after getting their degrees. And they’re more than willing to come here.

As James Kanter noted in a recent New York Times article from Brussels, economic growth in the European Union is currently about half the U.S. growth rate. As a result, job creation has lagged, with unemployment in the EU expected to average in the double digits for at least another year.

Among workers under 25, the unemployment rate is far worse: 24 percent overall at the end of 2013, 23.7 percent in Belgium, 18.9 percent in the Czech Republic, more than 50 percent in Greece and Spain, just under 25 percent in France, 40 percent in Italy, 23 percent in Sweden, more than 20 percent in Great Britain. Among the major industrial countries, only Germany — where vocational education is almost an art — appears to be in good shape.

The United States should roll out a welcome mat for overseas workers with specific technical skills needed here.

The existing H-1B visa program clearly isn’t doing the job if thousands upon thousands of technical positions remain unfilled because employers can’t find qualified workers. If politics don’t get in the way, it shouldn’t be too difficult to create agreeable rules for such a program.

Meanwhile, the United States needs to do more — much more — to interest American students in technical and engineering careers. One problem that needs to be resolved is the wall of separation that currently exists between our high schools’ “college prep” and “vocational ed” classes.


Harold L. Sirkin is a Chicago-based senior partner of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and co-author, most recently, of “The U.S. Manufacturing Renaissance: How Shifting Global Economics Are Creating an American Comeback.”