Trump’s assault on high tech is an epic fail for the economy

Google CEO Sundar Pichai and other tech executives have denounced Trump administration efforts to restrict immigration.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai and other tech executives have denounced Trump administration efforts to restrict immigration. The Associated Press

There is surely no shortage of U.S. workers in Silicon Valley. But if President Donald Trump wants to get more Americans hired in tech, the solution isn’t to threaten work visas or to ban travel by immigrants and refugees.

He should tackle the problem at its source – in American public high schools, where math, science and technology education lags that of other nations. The problem isn’t that employers won’t “hire American,” as Trump puts it. It’s that too many American students, disproportionately students of color, aren’t being adequately prepared.

Trump has been fragging America’s tech sector in what can only be described as an act of epic stupidity, economically speaking. His executive order last weekend to restrict visas and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries sowed international fear and chaos, and struck at the secret weapon that gives U.S. tech its edge – the ability to freely recruit and retain top talent internationally.

Immigrants are inextricably bound up with the success of tech in this country. Elon Musk came from South Africa to build Tesla, SpaceX and PayPal. Pierre Omidyar of eBay was born in Paris to Iranian parents. Yahoo founder Jerry Yang came from Taiwan at age 12 knowing one word of English. Apple’s Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian refugee.

But as if throwing huge employers such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft into turmoil weren’t sufficient, the administration said this week it is drafting another executive order aimed at severely limiting visas for foreign workers. The H-1B skilled visas most commonly requested in tech do need some tweaks, in part to stop offshore outsourcing firms from undercutting U.S. workers, but there’s no earthly reason that shouldn’t be done the normal way, by Congress.

Trump’s edicts – one already in force, the other, for now, only under discussion – have been denounced by tech executives in California and across the country, and for good moral and financial reasons. Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin, a former Soviet refugee, joined demonstrators at San Francisco International Airport. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said his company was exploring its own legal challenges, and joined Microsoft and Expedia in support of a Washington state lawsuit. Travis Kalanick, the head of Uber, quit Trump’s business council this week amid threats of boycott.

Several top executives are circulating an open letter asking Trump to work reasonably with them on this issue. But reason doesn’t seem to be driving policy in this administration.

Last weekend’s train wreck of an order was said to have been the brainchild of two of Trump’s most ideologically rigid lieutenants – Steve Bannon, a self-described “nationalist” and former head of the alt-right platform Breitbart, and Stephen Miller, a former aide to Trump’s attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions. Bannon has told audiences he believes the “Judeo-Christian West” is preparing for a war with Muslims, and has complained that American “civic society” is being overrun by Asian CEOs and immigrant tech workers. Miller’s speeches and writings are riddled with similar crackpottery.

Such bigotry has no place in U.S. policy, let alone the hiring practices in one of the nation’s biggest job engines. But even if their motives weren’t suspect, cutting off foreign visas won’t make engineers out of Rust Belt dropouts. At last count, the U.S. was projected to have 1.3 million unfilled tech jobs over the next five years. One analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers reported more than 209,000 unfilled jobs in cybersecurity. The reason? Not enough skilled U.S. workers to adequately fill them, not even in California.

So few high school students understand computer science here, in fact, that last year Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law to address the problem. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is still struggling to get computer science included in the core high school curriculum for University of California admissions.

The obvious solution, of course, would be to support public schools with federal money – an irony, given the private school zealot who is Trump’s pick for education secretary. So tech executives should speak up, to the extent they can without risking mean Trump tweets that tank their stock prices. Meanwhile, Trump might need another wall, just to keep Silicon Valley in Silicon Valley. The friendly Canadian business climate is the talk of the tech sector, suddenly.