(Cross post from the Microsoft on the Issues blog.)

Posted by Brad Smith
General Counsel & Executive Vice President, Legal & Corporate Affairs, Microsoft

The United States faces a growing economic challenge – a substantial and increasing shortage of individuals with the skills needed to fill the new jobs the private sector is creating. Throughout the nation and in a wide range of industries, there is an urgent demand for workers trained in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — yet there are not enough people with the necessary skills to meet that demand. Our nation faces the paradox of a crisis in unemployment at the same time that many companies cannot fill the jobs they have to offer. In addition to the short-term consequences for businesses and individuals, we risk these jobs migrating from the U.S., creating even bigger challenges for our long-term competitiveness and economic growth.

As an employer, we see these challenges first hand and are committed to doing what we can to help. One way we can help is to shine a light on these challenges and offer ideas and solutions. That’s why today we published a detailed whitepaper documenting ideas for a National Talent Strategy that would help secure U.S. competitiveness and economic growth. I also had the opportunity to discuss these ideas in a speech at the Brookings Institution today.

Microsoft spends more on research and development (R&D) than any other company, and 83 percent of this is invested in the United States. 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.

An effective national talent strategy therefore needs to combine long-term improvements in STEM education in the United States with targeted, short-term, high-skilled immigration reforms. If done right, the latter can help fund the former, and our whitepaper outlines specific recommendations.

To push the changes needed in the STEM education pipeline, we believe the country needs a national Race to the Future initiative that would provide incentives and financial resources for the states to strengthen STEM education. We believe this initiative should include, among other things, funding for states to:

  1. Strengthen K-12 STEM education by providing additional resources to recruit and train STEM teachers and implement Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards that will better prepare students for college and work in these disciplines;
  2. Broaden access to computer science in high school to ensure that all students have the opportunity to gain this foundational knowledge and explore careers in computing;
  3. Expand higher education capacity to produce more STEM degrees, including a particular focus on computer science degrees; and
  4. Address our national crisis in college completion by helping students who start college to finish it faster.

The benefits from such changes will take time to realize. To be effective in advancing innovation and keeping jobs in the United States, we also need targeted high-skilled immigration reform. We believe this should take two forms:

  1. First, Congress should create a new, supplemental category with 20,000 visas annually for STEM skills that are in short supply.
  2. In addition, Congress should take advantage of prior unused green cards by making a supplemental allocation of 20,000 new green card slots for workers with STEM skills.

Because education and immigration opportunities should go hand-in-hand, we believe it would be appropriate to require employers to make a meaningful financial commitment toward developing the American STEM pipeline in exchange for these new visas and green cards. Those funds would help pay for the STEM education investments across the country which would be part of a Race to the Future initiative. We believe this approach could raise up to $500 million per year – or $5 billion over a decade – that the federal government could use to distribute to states where the STEM education investments are needed.

As well as bringing policy ideas to the table, we are mobilizing our company to tackle these issues where we can. We recently announced Microsoft YouthSpark, a cross-company commitment to use our corporate philanthropy and business programs to create opportunities in education, employment or entrepreneurship for more than 50 million young people in the United States, and 300 million worldwide.

Ultimately, we can’t expect to build the economy of the future with only the jobs of the past. We must prepare the next generation for the waves of technological innovation that are on the horizon in every field. We are committed to doing our part and hope the business community, education institutions, and government can come together to pursue this common goal. We know the proposals outlined here do not have all the answers, but we believe they can help us move in the right direction to help our nation and America’s next generation realize their full potential.

Read the whitepaper: A National Talent Strategy – Ideas for Securing U.S. Competitiveness and Economic Growth.

Read more about Microsoft’s YouthSpark commitment.