Gates: U.S. risks losing technology leadership role

Microsoft chairman calls on Congress to act on education system and immigration policies, boost research spending

WASHINGTON -- Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates said today that he feels "deep anxiety" over the ability of the U.S. to compete globally and added that the country is risking its technology leadership because of failures in its education system and immigration policies and inadequate research spending.

"America simply cannot continue along this course," said Gates in written testimony delivered to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which is holding a hearing on "Strengthening American Competitiveness for the 21st Century." Gates said the U.S. is facing serious problems in delivering a work force that can rise to the global challenge.

"When I reflect on the state of American competitiveness today, my immediate feeling is not only one of pride, but also of deep anxiety," Gates said in his prepared remarks. "Too often, we as a society are sacrificing the long-term good of our country in the interests of short-term gain."

Gates said in too many areas, the U.S. is "content to live off the investments that previous generations made for us -- in education, in health care, in basic scientific research -- but [is] unwilling to invest equal energy and resources into building on this legacy to ensure that America's future is as bright and prosperous as its present."

Many of the issues that Gates outlined are topics he has raised before in various speeches and op-ed pieces. But this hearing was unusual. Gates was listed as the only witness before a committee chaired by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Kennedy is working with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on a major immigration reform bill, an important focus of Gates.

Gates told the committee the U.S. should ensure that its students and workers have the skills to compete.

"A top priority must be to reverse our dismal high school graduation rates -- with a target of doubling the number of young people who graduate from high school ready for college, career and life -- and to place a major emphasis on encouraging careers in math and science," Gates said.

Gates said immigration reform is needed as well. He cited the H-1B visa and green card programs as areas in need of change.

The U.S. will begin accepting applications for H-1B visas April 1 for the new fiscal year, and Gates said he expects the supply of visas will also run within a month. The U.S. set a cap of 65,000 visas but has an additional 20,000 visas available to foreign nationals who graduate with advance degrees from U.S. universities. There are other exemptions in the program as well.

Regarding the H-1B program, Gates predicts that "for the first time in the history of the program, the supply will run out before the year's graduating students get their degrees. This means that U.S. employers will not be able to get H-1B visas for an entire crop of U.S. graduates. We are essentially asking top talent to leave the U.S."

Gates also said the U.S. has to increase spending on basic research significantly.

Regarding education, Gates said that over the next several years, six out of every 10 new jobs will be in professional and service-related occupations.

"Given the state of our educational system, it is not surprising that U.S. companies are reporting serious shortages of skilled workers," said Gates. "According to a 2005 U.S. Department of Education study, only 13% of American adults are proficient in the knowledge and skills needed to search, comprehend and use information, or to perform computational tasks. This yawning gap between America's economic needs and the skills of its workforce indicates that as a nation, we are not doing nearly enough to equip and continuously improve the capabilities of American workers."

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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