All of Washington must have been proud earlier this year when one of our very own was awarded the 63rd National Teacher of the Year.  Jeff Charbonneau, a 9th-12th grade chemistry, physics, and engineering teacher from Zillah High School, was also praised for starting the school’s first robotics team.

Charbonneau’s work and the work of so many other Washington teachers are crucial, and the state continues to lead the nation in a tech-driven economy.  The presence of Washington-headquartered companies such as Microsoft and Amazon has helped the area outperform the Silicon Valley with a 7.6% job growth in STEM fields over the past few years.

However, while STEM jobs are among the fastest growing in Washington, we still may be failing to produce enough qualified workers to fill them.  By 2018, the U.S. will need to fill nearly 8,654,000 STEM-related jobs, and approximately 303,000 of those jobs will be in Washington, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The challenge of the nation’s STEM jobs gap was on display earlier this year when the U.S. opened the period for companies to apply for H-1B visas that allow them to hire foreign workers to fill vacant high-skilled positions.  This year, the full allotment of 65,000 of the visas was exhausted within just five days.  In the previous year, it took 10 weeks to reach the cap, which was set in 1990 and has not been updated to reflect a more technology-driven economy.

The need for addressing the STEM jobs crisis is clear, and Congress is considering the SKILLS Visa Act, legislation that would reform our high-skilled immigration program by raising the outdated cap on H-1B visas so that companies can immediately fill vacant STEM-related positions with high-skilled foreign workers.

The legislation also wisely looks forward and encourages the creation of a national fund to help states strengthen STEM education programs in the long-term. Because the crisis demands a solution for the long term, Microsoft and many other tech companies have long-supported establishment of a fund supported by fees companies pay for H-1B visas.

The fund would be the only federal funding stream dedicated to STEM education in the states.  It would also complement the state’s recently passed bill that will boost STEM education for students from pre-school through college.   Ultimately, Washington’s education system and our economy will be well-served if we’re able to produce more teachers like Jeff Charbonneau, who are trained in STEM.

Reforming our immigration system will help fill jobs in Washington now, but its impact will reach even further. According to a July study from Regional Economic Models, Inc., reforming the nation’s immigration system will significantly boost Washington’s workforce by adding more than 2,600 jobs by 2014 and more than 12,000 jobs by 2020.   The study also notes that reforming the H-1B visa program will add more than $555 million to Washington’s Gross State Product in 2014 and $4 billion dollars by 2045.

Washington has taken the lead to ensure the state has a stronger STEM education pipeline. When congressional members return from August recess, immigration reform and the SKILLS Visa Act specifically should be at the very top of their to-do list.


[Featured image used under license;, credit: Melpomene]