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Microsoft on STEM education: Time for a 'National Talent Strategy'

Sep 28, 2012
Matt Sonnesyn

What skills do workers need in order to fill the 3.2 million unfilled jobs in in America today?  Increasingly, the answer is better education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM for short. 

So argues a new Microsoft white paper released at the Brookings Institution Thursday, which calls for a new “National Talent Strategy.”  During his remarks at the event and in a simultaneous blog post , Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith argued the challenge is far bigger than finding a workforce for Microsoft or even the Information Technology sector:

Like other companies across the information technology sector, we are creating new jobs in the U.S. faster than we can fill them. We now have more than 6,000 open jobs in the country, an increase of 15 percent over the last year. More than 3,400 of these jobs are for researchers, developers and engineers, and this total has grown by 34 percent over the past 12 months.

Just as this challenge is not unique to Microsoft, it is not unique to the information technology sector. While the overall unemployment rate hovers around 8 percent, unemployment in computer-related occupations has fallen to 3.4 percent. Too few American students – especially students who have historically been underserved and underrepresented – are achieving the levels of education required to secure jobs in innovation-based industries.

Smith proposed a two-part strategy to better fill the “pipeline” for future jobs that require these skills while at the same time putting talented individuals into these jobs right away, before the jobs migrate overseas:

  1. Invest more in STEM education by focusing on better teachers and higher standards in K-12 education, increasing the number of computer science courses in high schools and colleges, and focusing on the “college completion crisis” where half of American students drop-out before getting their degree.  Smith called on Congress to put $500 million per year behind the effort, sending that money to the states based upon a competitive process.
  2. Raising federal revenue to pay for the $500 million per year effort by insourcing skilled labor to fill those unfilled jobs today -- adding 20,000 new visas for workers with STEM skills at a cost of $10,000 each and 20,000 new green cards for workers with STEM skills at a cost of $15,000 each.

Last week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, a Business Roundtable member, announced the company would put $500 million in philanthropy into efforts “to create opportunities for 300 million youth in more than 100 countries during the next three years,” according to the company’s press release.

During questions and answers at the Brookings event, Smith expressed frustration that Congress keeps getting close to addressing this problem, but so far has failed to act.  Indeed, despite bipartisan interest in the issue, last week the House of Representatives failed to pass legislation that would have made 55,000 green cards available annually to foreign-born graduates who earn advanced degrees in STEM from a U.S. university.  As Business Roundtable President John Engler noted, “It makes no sense to welcome highly educated talent into our universities and then shut them out of our innovation economy.”