The talent shortage in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields is getting worse and should be a concern for employers regardless of their industry as manufacturing increasingly becomes computerized, Brad Smith, executive vice president and general counsel for Microsoft, told attendees of a Brookings Institution event Sept. 27, 2012.
Smith called on Congress to invest in more computer science programs in high schools and higher education and increase the number of visas for STEM workers by 20,000 per year.From Bad to Worse
Smith shared some of Microsoft’s experiences and said that they are not unlike the experiences of other companies.
Currently, Microsoft has 6,000 open jobs in the United States, 15 percent more than a year ago. Of those open positions, 3,400 are for engineers, software developers and researchers, an increase of 34 percent over a year ago. “We’re creating unfilled jobs faster now than new filled positions,” he remarked.
“We are not alone. People in other companies say ‘our story is exactly the same,’ ” Smith added.
Across the United States, there are 3.7 million open jobs, and in computer-related occupations the unemployment rate is 3.4 percent. Generally, full employment is considered to be reached when the unemployment figure is at 4 percent, he said, noting that there is a talent shortage.
Why the shortage?
Smith said that this year, 120,000 new jobs in the United States will require a bachelor’s degree in computer science. The total number of graduates with this degree from all of the nation’s universities this year is just 40,000. “There’s a shortage, and this shortage is getting worse,” he said, predicting similar numbers throughout the decade.
“For companies seeking to recover from the recession, one of the biggest problems is to find people who have the skills to fill jobs,” Smith remarked, noting that the alternative is to move jobs to other countries where workers have those skills.Call for Legislation
Smith laid out a plan to fix the shortage, calling on Congress to enact legislation investing more in STEM education, raising the number of STEM visas available each year and increasing the cost of those visas to pay for the added investment in education.
There needs to be better STEM education for grades K-12, he remarked, and more computer science classes in high school, in particular.
Of the 30,000 public high schools and 12,000 private high schools in this country, only 2,100 offer the Advanced Placement test in computer science, he said. “That number is shrinking,” he added, noting that it is 25 percent lower than five years ago. Every high school should offer computer science courses, he remarked.
Smith proposed an investment by the government of $5 billion in computer science courses in high schools, community colleges and four-year institutions of higher education over the next decade—$500 million each year.Who Will Pay for This?
That money could come from an additional 20,000 visas per year in STEM disciplines if these visas are priced at $10,000 per visa for $200 million a year if all these additional visas are used. Currently, H-1B visas are limited to 65,000 each year with an additional 20,000 qualifying for the advanced degree cap exemption.
Smith also called on the federal government to recapture 20,000 green cards from its green card backlog
each year and make them available at $15,000 per green card for $300 million a year.
Unlike the caps on the H-1B visa, the annual green card cap of 140,000 is not use it or lose it, explained Rebecca Peters, director and counsel for legislative affairs with the SHRM-affiliated American Council on International Personnel.
Since 1992, more than 300,000 available green cards within the cap have gone unused. These are in a pool and technically are available to be recaptured and used, but in the current political climate their recapture has been viewed by some as new green cards and the subject of debate, she told SHRM Online.
For each new STEM job, five more jobs are created, he emphasized. He is optimistic that in the next year “Congress will pursue this type of new race for the future. The critical question is can we get something done.”Allen Smith, J.D., is SHRM’s manager, workplace law content.