The fuel needed to power America's high-technology industries is already in short supply - and the critical situation is worsening.
The raw material that drives these fast-evolving companies - an educated work force ready to become tomorrow's engineers, systems analysts, programmers, technicians - is not being produced in adequate quantity or quality by the nation's high schools, sources within both the education and business communities say.
Headlines telling of declining public school enrollments and teacher layoffs have not told the entire story. Although the need for qualified teachers in many subject areas has plummeted, the nation's public schools now face a serious shortage of teachers in the sciences. The reason: an explosion of interest by students in technical fields such as engineering and computers and an exodus of qualified teachers to better-paying jobs in industry.
''Students aren't stupid; they read the newspaper. They know where the jobs are,'' says Dr. Elizabeth Useem, associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. The ''Star Wars'' generation is growing up; engineering is now the most popular major for males entering college, she says.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 93- to 112-percent increase in computer services jobs in this decade, with the demand for systems analysts increasing up to 80 percent and for computer programmers, 60 percent.
But at a time that both job-oriented teen-agers and high-technology companies are anticipating continued demand for scientific and technical manpower, local public schools have a reduced capacity to respond to that demand:
* New York, the nation's second-most populous state, has only thirty-two 1982 college graduates planning to teach junior or senior high school math. The State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany, with over 15,000 students, hasn't graduated a physics teacher for six years.
* In New Hampshire, only one college graduate this year is planning a career teaching mathematics, according to a state department of education spokesman.
* In the Pacific states (California, Oregon, Washington), 84 percent of newly hired science and math teachers lack the requisite state education department courses for teacher certification, the National Science Teachers Association says.
* Twenty-five states have a ''critical'' shortage of high-school physics teachers, according to a recent national study conducted by Iowa State University; 20 states critically need math and science teachers.
Dr. Useem has just completed the second of two studies examining high school math and science programs in the nation's two leading high-tech regions: northern California's Santa Clara Valley (''Silicon Valley'') and the ''Golden Horseshoe'' along Route 128 west of Boston. If secondary school curricula reflecting today's technological revolution could be found anywhere, she reasoned, it should be in these regions.
In her first study, completed last August, she found major deficiencies in California's schools. Only 15 percent of male high school students and 7 percent of females took three or more years of science, about half as many as the national average and far below rates in Japan, the Soviet Union, and West Germany.
There were also the overall problems of shortened school days and larger classes resulting from funding cutbacks at the schools. Although willing to donate funds, personnel, and equipment to colleges and universities, nearby high-tech industries showed little sympathy for the money squeeze at the high-school level.
Ms. Useem's just-released Massachusetts study, ''Education in a High Technology World: The Case of Route 128,'' pinpointed another serious problem: potential teacher shortages. In a survey of math and science teachers in eight high schools along the 128 belt she found that only two-fifths of these instructors plan to remain in teaching.
And few new teachers are coming in. ''You walk into one of these schools,'' she said, ''and there's hardly anyone (in math or science) under the age of 40. One science faculty had no one under the age of 40. And there are no student teachers.''
Until recently, high-tech industries have seemed little concerned about the problem.
''Industry has been reticent to participate; they felt it wasn't their problem, that schools could take care of themselves,'' says Jan McDonald of the Department of Teacher Education at SUNY-Albany.
In late May, Dr. McDonald's department held a seminar on the state of high-school science and math for industry leaders in the Albany area. ''Many left with their mouths gaping,'' she says. The concerns, she adds, suddenly became personal: ''Who's going to teach my kids or grandchildren?''
''We're only beginning to get (high-tech industry) people concerned,'' agrees B. J. Rudman, human-resources consultant to the Massachusetts High Technology Council, a highly visible corporate-interest group representing 124 companies, with 115,000 workers. His own opinion, he says, is that ''if we (the industry) don't jump into this, the problem won't be solved. I don't know if we'll see a big government push to solve this issue.
''Corporations are spending somewhere between $40 billion and $100 billion each year on corporate training, compared to total university operating budgets of $20 billion to $30 billion, says Dr. Arnold K. Weinstein, an analyst at Arthur D. Little. Universities won't be able to invest in much-needed new laboratories and technical facilities. ''That's why we're seeing companies like Wang, IBM, and Xerox investing in education,'' says Dr. Weinstein.
But designing a larger industry role is not an easy task, Mr. Rudman cautions. ''Companies have a hard time trying to figure out how to address the problem,'' he says, pointing out that Massachusetts alone has hundreds of local school districts, and that there's little coordinated planning among them. One prominent business leader in Dr. Useem's California study observed: ''The problems are so big, so bureaucratic and complicated that you don't know where to begin.''
In contrast, industry effort is well under way at the college level. In February, for example, a meeting of leaders from engineering schools and high-tech firms agreed on a ''2 percent solution.'' Companies set a goal of spending 2 percent of their research and development funds, $14 million to $15 million a year, to aid the schools.
But help for high schools has been sporadic, at best, although a so-called ''computer bill'' was the subject of recent hearings in the US House of Representatives. It would provide greater tax write-offs - up to 30 percent of the company's taxable income in the first year - for corporations donating equipment to elementary and secondary schools.
Although that bill has already gained the backing of some education groups, Dr. Useem and Mr. Rudman agree there is a more essential need: programs to attract and keep qualified teachers. Starting teaching salaries in the $11,000 -to-$13,000 range, Dr. Useem says, cannot attract graduates who can draw as much as $10,000 more in private industry. And veteran teachers need some ''zip'' put into their work lives, she says, through programs like summer internships in industry.
In addition, companies could supply scholarships for those planning classroom careers, says Mr. Rudman, as well as share their knowledge and skills through workshops for teachers. Individual companies also could lend key personnel to schools and form one-to-one partnerships with individual high schools, adds David Giguere, a spokesman for the New England Board of Higher Education. Security Pacific Bank in California, the General Electric Company in New York City, and the Bell System in Bridgeport and New Haven, Conn., are doing this now , he says.
''The companies are already paying the price,'' Dr. Useem contends. ''Many already have large training programs, almost like universities. They're having to do a lot of remedial math, remedial writing.''