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4/27/2005
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Microsoft Struggles To Find Skilled Labor

A panel discussion at the Microsoft Research Tech Fair provided insight into the future of innovation and U.S. competitiveness.

Want to know a little bit about what the future will look like? A stroll through the Library of Congress on Wednesday provided a glimpse of some of the latest innovations in computing and science on display at the Microsoft Research Tech Fair. It was an impressive combination of the gee-whiz and the practical.

The event also provided insight into the future of innovation and U.S. competitiveness from a panel discussion with Microsoft chairman Bill Gates; Rick Rashid, senior VP of Microsoft Research; Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Rep, David Dreier, R-Calif.; Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University; and Phillip Bond, undersecretary of technology for the Department of Commerce.

The discussion sparked a lively debate about H-1B visa caps, the availability of IT jobs, and the poor state of K-12 education.

"The opportunity for innovation is stronger today than ever before," Gates said. But he added that the climate is also a "bit scary," noting that investment in education in the United States is eroding at the same time investment in research funding and interest in science are going down.

"I'm quite concerned that the U.S. will lose its relative position in something that is very critical to this country," Gates said.

The impact that's had on Microsoft centers on hiring. "The jobs are there and they are high-paying jobs, but we are not seeing the pipeline [of talented job applicants] as it used to be," Gates said. Instead, talented foreign students are either not coming to the United States to study or they're returning home for other opportunities once they graduate, he said.

Microsoft isn't finding an adequate labor pool in the United States, Gates said. Despite Commerce Department statistics to the contrary, he said, "Anyone who's got the education and the experience, they're not out there unemployed."

Tilghman argued that there's a paradox in American society about education. "The U.S. has the finest higher-education system in the world," she said. "What's failing is the K-12 system." She added, "By the time they get to us [at the university level] they are math-phobic and science-phobic."

How bad is the problem? Bond noted that from 1995 to 2000, the number of students in computer science and engineering was up 130%, but that's gone down 39% since then.

A big part of the problem, Leahy contended, is the lack of visas that are being made available. "The post-9/11 effort to cut down visas was a bad mistake. I think we should have increased them."

"We need to do more to move more IQ through the educational system and through immigration," Rashid added. In fact, he and Gates would like to see the cap on H-1B visas lifted.

Not only did the panelists agree that the H-1B issue needs to be addressed, but Dreier said the federal government needs to rethink policies that create disincentives for doing more research or for working in the United States. On Dec. 31, for example, the R&D tax credit will expire. "We need to make sure we make [those credits] permanent."

After the panel discussion, Microsoft, which spends more than $7 billion a year on R&D, demonstrated some of its own technology advancements as well as some of its collaborative works with the University of San Diego and Carnegie Mellon University.

On display were research projects that promote usability and security. For instance, Microsoft researchers have created a "desktop on a key chain" capability that will allow people to use small and inexpensive flash-based kiosks to capture their desktop (with specific Word documents open, their E-mail box open, a presentation that's being built, etc.) and call it up from another computer or kiosk. That would allow the mobile professional to work without having to lug along a PC.

Another project revealed an innovative database-query interface that will allow businesses to mine confidential data while ensuring privacy. Another initiative lets researchers use pattern recognition for biological insights and medical treatments.

For more on the projects on display at Microsoft Research's Tech Fair, click here.

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