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Microsoft Pushes STEM Acceleration Funded by Immigration Revamp

In a wide-ranging push for policy change, Microsoft has taken up the call to increase the number of STEM graduates in the United States over the long haul while also calling for H-1B visa reform to fill a perceived gap of science, technology, engineering, and math talent in the short-term. Last week the global technology company held a forum at the Brookings Institute to coincide with the release of "A National Talent Strategy," a new paper that lays out the challenges of "a substantial and increasing shortage of individuals with the skills needed to fill the new jobs the private sector is creating."

The forum was held days after the company announced it was plowing its major foundation contributions into opportunities for young people, in an initiative called YouthSpark.

Microsoft reported that it currently has 6,000 open jobs in the United States, of which 3,400 are for researchers, developers, and engineers. That total has grown by a third over the last year. In the overall economy, the company said, unemployment in computer-related occupations has fallen to 3.4 percent compared to 8.1 percent overall, and that has created a dearth of qualified workers in the computer science fields. The company reported that the shortage of skilled people will only increase, pointing to an estimate from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: 120,000 additional computing jobs requiring at least a bachelor's degree were expected to open up between 2010 and 2010.

A Push for Computer Science Earlier
One area where Microsoft said great improvement needs to be undertaken is in education. Whereas China graduates 31 percent of its bachelor-equivalent degrees in engineer, the company reported, the United States awards only about 4 percent in that discipline. That gap begins in high school, where "only 45 percent of U.S. high school graduates were prepared for college-level math, and only 30 percent were prepared for college-level science," the report's authors stated. "The problem is especially acute for girls, low-income students, and minorities."

Calling for a "Race to the Future," a nod to the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top and Race to the Top District competitions, Microsoft said the country needs to be more aggressive in recruiting K-12 STEM teachers and investing in training resources for them. Microsoft put forward several ideas for achieving progress, including:

  • STEM-themed schools;
  • Externships for teachers to work alongside industry professionals;
  • Advanced learning opportunities such as Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment programs for college credit;
  • Internships and mentorships for students; and
  • After-school STEM enrichment programs.

To address the shortage of teachers competent to teach technology courses, Microsoft recommended that states expand their teacher certification programs to encompass computer science as areas of specialization and provide flexible routes for current teachers trained in other subjects to make the transition.

The company has expanded a grass-roots effort started in 2009-2010 by putting its own engineers into schools to teach computer science classes through a program called Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS). Currently, the program has surfaced in 22 schools in the Seattle area as well as other schools in Washington and seven other states, encompassing 2,000 students. The Seattle schools have paired the engineers with regular teachers in order to help with classroom management and to educate the professional teachers on the curriculum and help them learn how to run their own computer science classes. Classes tend to be held early in the day to enable the engineers to get to their regular jobs for Microsoft.

The eventual goal of Race to the Future, Microsoft stated, was to "give all high school students in the U.S. access to computer science." Only in that way, the company suggested, would students have the chance to develop an interest in the subject, which could lead to a bigger commitment post-high school.

Microsoft said districts could help the effort by recognizing the validity of computer science courses as core credits in math and science, a practice that, according to the company, only nine states currently follow; the others push computer science classes as electives. At the same time, the report recommended that "computer science knowledge" be added into core standards, such as the Next Generation Science Standards, which are currently under development by 26 states.

Higher education institutions could make STEM education more palatable, the company suggested, by developing streamlined programs, or "guided pathways," to help students pursue their STEM degrees, including simplified course registration, a more cohesive program of classes, and "on-time degree plans." One of the primary goals: to double the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in computer science, to more than 80,000 from the current 40,000.

States too could contribute to the effort by paying out to colleges based on the number of degrees completed, the number of students who successfully transfer from a two-year to a four-year school, and the number of courses completed on time. And states themselves should be rewarded, the report said, for proving that they've increased "capacity" for STEM-related degrees and aided in the "the attainment of those degrees by U.S. citizens."

It cited a New York Times article profiling the computer science department at the University of Washington, which recently increased the budget of its computer science department with the aim of granting a third more degrees in computer science over the next several years.

Funding from H-1B Revisions
To address the funding of all of its proposed initiatives and to fill what it perceives as STEM-ready employment deficiency, Microsoft is recommending a revamp of the H-1B visa program, which allows non-citizens to apply to work in "specialty occupations" in the United States. First, the company said, the country needs to add 20,000 H-1B visas to the current 65,000-visa program. The new visas would specifically be used by foreign nationals with a STEM-related bachelor's degree or higher from an American university.

To use one of the visas, employers would be required to pay $10,000. Microsoft, among the most frequent users of the H-1B program, estimated that the new allocation of visas would generate $200 million "in investments for the American STEM pipeline annually." The company's calculations don't take into account the current fees charged by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for an H-1B visa, which is between $2,500 and $3,000. If that were included in the formula, the new program would actually generate somewhere between $140 million and $150 million on top of what's already being charged.

The company also suggested speeding up the processing of employment-based green cards, which allows a person to become a U.S. citizen. Thousands of green cards each year expire before an individual can meet the requirements. To "recapture" the number from these expired green cards, Microsoft recommended a $15,000 fee paid by employers, up from government-imposed fees of about $1,500. That would generate $300 million annually, Microsoft estimated. Again, the figure doesn't reflect the difference between the existing fee and the proposed fee.

Investing in Youth
The recommendations made by Microsoft come on the heels of the company's announcement that it would invest the majority of its cash contributions to programs that would benefit young people around the world. YouthSpark hopes to reach out to 300 million people in 100 countries over the next three years to help them connect with opportunities in education, employment, and entrepreneurship.

Many of the programs already exist, such as Partners in Learning, which is a professional development program to help educators and others learn how to use technology to address 21st century skills in the classroom; and Microsoft IT Academy, which helps students obtain technology skills and professional certification.

New to the initiative are three programs:

  • Give for Youth, a global microgiving marketplace specifically to help nonprofits raise funds to support youth causes around the world;
  • YouthSpark Hub, an online space where people can find out more about youth services, programs, and resources provided by Microsoft and its nonprofit partners; and
  • Innovate for Good, an online community to help young people use technology to collaborate, inspire, and support one another in community service projects.

"Sometimes when a small problem proves intractable, you have to make it bigger," said Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel and an executive vice president who represented Microsoft for both sets of announcements. "You have to make the problem big enough so that the solution is exciting enough to galvanize the people's attention and generate the will to overcome the hurdles that have been holding us back. I believe that if we can combine what we're doing with respect to education with what we need to do with respect to immigration, w have that opportunity ahead of us. We need to do something new; we need to try something different. Maybe we'll find something even better, but we're pretty excited about this path forward."