Microsoft calls for $5 billion investment in US education

The new spending would be paid for by new fees on H-1B and green card visa, under Microsoft's plan

Congress should invest US$5 billion in the country's education system -- particularly in math, science and technology education -- over the next 10 years and pay for it with increased fees on high-skill immigration, a Microsoft executive said.

The U.S. needs to push more resources into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education because technology companies are running into huge shortages of workers, said Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel and executive vice president. With most U.S. industries relying heavily on IT systems, other companies will soon start to see those worker shortages as well, unless the country focuses more on STEM education, he said during a speech at the Brookings Institution Thursday.

"We need to do something new," he said. "We need to try something different."

To pay for the $500-million-a-year investment in education, Smith proposed that Congress add 20,000 high-skill immigration visas dedicated to workers in STEM fields to the existing 85,000 H-1B visas allowed each year. Congress should charge $10,000 for each of the 20,000 H-1Bs, he said. H-1B applications normally cost about $2,800 for large companies.

In addition, Congress should "recapture" 15,000 unused green card visas each year and charge $15,000 for those applications, he said.

Charging $10,000 for STEM-focused H-1B visas is "economically feasible," Smith said.

The $500 million raised by the two new programs would go to states to improve their education systems, under the Microsoft plan, detailed in a white paper.

Smith said he's talked to Democratic and Republican lawmakers about the plan and found a receptive audience. He said he hopes the Microsoft proposal, or other legislation focused on STEM jobs, can help break a stalemate in Congress over high-skill immigration. "We're trying to break a logjam here," he said. "We do need to do something to break the logjam over the next 12 months, or I really fear that run an increasing risk that the jobs are going to start to migrate elsewhere."

New education spending is needed in the U.S. because the country risks falling behind several other nations, Smith said.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has forecast more than 120,000 computing job openings a year in the U.S. between now and 2020, Smith noted. But the country graduates less than 60,000 computing students a year in bachelor's, master's and doctorate programs.

Microsoft currently has about 6,000 U.S. job openings, with 3,400 of those jobs for researchers, developers and engineers, he said. "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," he wrote in his blog post.

Smith's speech found a receptive audience at Brookings. Teacher pay is one area that needs attention in the STEM fields, said Michael McShane, a research fellow in education policy for the American Enterprise Institute. The U.S. has a shortage of good STEM teachers, he said, because young people with those degrees can get bigger paychecks in private industry.

"Our school districts are competing against Microsoft for that talent," he said. "[Microsoft] can alter their compensation strategies based on market needs. Unfortunately, in many cases, we have locked teacher compensation into step-and-lane pay scales."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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