Microsoft's STEM Worker Shortage Solution

Microsoft recently launched what it calls its National Talent Strategy, an initiative it believes will help secure U.S. competitiveness and economic growth. But can it actually work?

Thursday, November 15, 2012
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As a human resource executive for a tech company, Denise Stott's not concerned about distributing pink slips or dealing with the recovering economy. To the contrary, Stott's concerns involve the frustration of not being able to find the right talent to fill job openings because her company needs STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workers -- a scarcity in today's talent market.

Stott, vice president of human resources at Yodle, a fast-growing New York-based technology company that provides local online marketing to small businesses, says her challenge is finding and then competing for in-demand STEM workers.

"It seems every available STEM worker has had multiple offers and counter-offers," Stott says. "Demand is high and the unemployment rate low for this highly desirable type of talent. The same companies seem to be seeking the same people over and over, and there are just not enough to fill the pipeline."

Technology giant Microsoft feels Stott's pain, but at an even more acute level since the Redmond, Wash., company needs thousands of STEM workers to remain competitive with the other industry giants worldwide. As an antidote, Microsoft recently launched what it calls its National Talent Strategy, an initiative it believes will help secure U.S. competitiveness and economic growth.

"As an employer, we see these challenges first-hand and are committed to doing what we can to help," says Karen Jones, vice president and deputy general counsel for HR law at Microsoft. "One way we can help is to shine a light on these challenges and offer ideas and solutions."

Jones explains it's no secret that 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.

"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," she says, adding that in addition to the short-term consequences for businesses and individuals, businesses risk these jobs migrating from the United States, creating even bigger challenges for the country's long-term competitiveness and economic growth.

It's not surprising that Microsoft spends more on research and development than any other company, and 83 percent of the effort is invested in the United States. Like other companies across the information technology sector, Jones explains, Microsoft is creating new jobs in the United States faster than it can fill them. For example, Microsoft now has 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.

The NTS strategy is focused on pushing necessary changes into the STEM education pipeline, Jones explains, adding that the country needs a national "Race to the Future" initiative that would provide incentives and financial resources for the states to strengthen STEM education.

To fund that effort, Congress first needs to create a new, supplemental category with 20,000 visas annually for STEM skills that are in short supply, she says. In addition, Jones says, 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, Jones says the next step would require employers to make a meaningful financial commitment toward developing the American STEM pipeline in exchange for these new visas and green cards. In turn, those accumulating 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," Jones says.

Among other ideas, funding for states could be used to 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. Other ways to use the funding include broadening access to computer science in high school to ensure that all students have the opportunity to gain a foundational knowledge and explore careers in computing, and to expand higher education capacity to produce more STEM degrees, including a particular focus on computer science degrees.

According to Jones, while the overall unemployment rate hovers just under eight percent, unemployment in computer-related occupations has fallen to 3.4 percent. Yet, she says, 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.

She explains that an effective national talent strategy must 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," she says.

"Our economy requires a workforce with a sound math and science foundation," says Robert Hoffman, senior vice president for government relations at the Information Technology Industry Council, an advocacy and policy organization for major technology employers in Washington. "As our foreign competitors continue to experience economic growth, it's important that we identify solutions that will speed up growth here in the United States. Microsoft's proposal is the kind of innovative thinking the country needs, and it certainly warrants consideration in Washington."

Jones and Hoffman will get no argument from Yodle's Stott, who says that the added expense to employers through the increased visa and green card plan is not a problem when you consider the cost of an agency when sourcing top talent.

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"It is going to cost you 20 percent of salary just to find a good candidate," she says. "The long-term pragmatic solution is we have to create and educate more STEM workers."

Stott, who once taught math and whose mother is a math teacher, says STEM education, by and large, is not made to be be very attractive in our current educational system.

"There certainly is a need to make it more accessible," she says. "We need engaged teachers, which can mean a big difference in the interest in math. We need to create that type of excitement."

Of course, starting early means the payoff might be years away, Stott adds, but that matters little when you consider the alternative.

"I can't imagine how difficult it will be to remain competitive if we don't start doing something now," she says. "I would love to hire more non-visa applicants, but the numbers just are not there."

On the other hand, Stott says, Yodle gets a ton of applicants for every job opening, but the majority of them are not qualified due to a lack of skills.

"We are growing very quickly, 40 to 50 percent year over year, and finding tech talent is the biggest challenge we've had in the past 18 months," she says.

According to Jones, the overall response to Microsoft's NTS announcement has been positive. She says it's really a matter of our bringing to the forefront issues many employers have experienced, noting that the basic employment data tells the story all by itself. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that by 2018, there will be 1.2 million job openings for computer science graduates, but with current grad rates, the U.S. will only meet a third of that number.

"We're not even graduating enough people with degrees in computer science to begin to meet the needs we have today, much less in the future," she says.

Politically, the NTS concept has some very strong points going for it, Jones says, noting that what's unique about NTS is its weaving of education reform with immigration reform. However, the latter has caused some political flak that needs to be overcome for the initiative to succeed. In short, there is the idea that increasing visa and green card employees is just not politically popular among certain groups on Capitol Hill.

Even so, Jones says, Microsoft is hopeful that the details can be worked to everyone's satisfaction.

"What causes us to feel optimistic is that the plan involves business and government and knits immigration reform with education reform," she says. "We feel it is can succeed because it can have a high level of bipartisan support.

"Best of all," she says. "It has the potential to solve problems without added government funding to ensure economic growth. And that is something everyone can agree on."


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