IT execs: Education is weak link

The information technology industry may be besieged by hackers and beset

by software pirates, but the most serious threat it confronts comes from

the U.S. education system, industry leaders told Congress last week.

From elementary schools to universities, American schools are not producing

enough students with math and science expertise to meet the industry's needs,

according to the chiefs of two corporate IT giants.

"Among the many high-tech issues before this Congress, none carries

greater importance for our future economic vitality than education," said

Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft Corp., speaking before Congress' Joint

Economic Committee June 6.

"The state of education has reached an emergency [level]," said Andrew

Grove, chairman of Intel Corp. "All of the indicators are going in the wrong

direction."

The two were lead witnesses during a two-day hearing on problems impeding

the "new economy."

The failure to produce well-trained workers for the knowledge economy

will be a problem for years to come, Grove said. "If we knew what to do

today, we would not see the result for 10 to 20 years," he said. But there

is not an obvious fix. The problem is that "young people are not getting

into science and math."

For example, U.S. colleges awarded 14,000 electrical engineering degrees

in 1998 — down from 25,000 in 1988. The number of computer science and computer

engineering degrees also declined during that 10-year stretch, Grove told

the committee, which is made up of House and Senate members.

Today, 55 percent of students working on Ph.D. degrees in engineering

are foreign students, and many of them will be forced by immigration laws

to leave the country when they have completed their education. "Educating

them and then making them leave makes no sense," Grove said.

"There must be substantial changes in the science and technology education

system," he told the committee, which is chaired by Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.).

Change needs to begin in elementary school, "particularly with respect

to math and science," Gates said. But it is not just a problem with students.

Among the nation's teachers, only 20 percent say they feel confident using

technology in their classrooms, he said.

Gates said his foundation is spending $350 million to help teachers

and school administrators integrate technology into school curriculums,

and he said Microsoft has committed $570 million in software, support and

funding to give teachers education, training and access to technology programs.

For its part, Intel has pledged to provide technology training for 400,000

teachers. But until the education system starts to produce an adequate supply

of American students with strong math and science backgrounds, the technology

industry must continue to rely on foreign workers, Grove said.

"How can we modify the immigration policies so that individuals who

are very eager to become part of the U.S. economy can do so?" Grove asked

the committee. In 1998, Congress increased the number of visas for foreign

IT workers from 65,000 to 115,000, but the demand still exceeds the supply.

All the visas were issued by March, Grove said.

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