In order to remain globally competitive, America needs to double the number of science, math, and technology graduates in the U.S. by 2015, and in the meantime must reform immigration policies to allow more highly skilled tech talent into the U.S, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates testified before a Senate committee on Wednesday.
"America has always done best when we brought the best minds to our shores," Gates told members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. "Scientists like Albert Einstein were born abroad but did their best work here because we welcomed them."
The nation needs to raise the current cap on H-1B visas, which are the visas used for U.S. companies to hire foreign technology talent to work in the U.S., said Gates.
For 2007, the cap of 65,000 H1-B visas was hit four months before the fiscal year even began, complained Gates. "For 2008, they will run out even earlier, well before degree candidates graduate," he said. "So for the first time ever, we will not be able to seek H-1Bs for this year's graduating students."
In addition, "the wait times for green cards routinely reach five years and are even longer for scientists and engineers from India and China -- key recruiting grounds for skilled technical professionals," he said.
Technology companies like Microsoft for the last couple of years have been lobbying hard for Congress to increase the number of H-1B visas the nation issues annually. However, the chorus is getting louder right now because the April 1 date is quickly approaching for when companies can submit their petitions for visas that would take effect on Oct. 1, the beginning of the government's fiscal 2008 year.
In recent years, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received enough petitions for visas on the first day the applications could be submitted. In the last Congress, both the Senate and House of Representative approved their own immigration reform bills that would raise the current H-1B cap to 115,000, the level in 1999. However, those bills were bottlenecked because of other hot-button immigration issues, such as border reform.
"Our immigration policies are driving away the world's best and brightest precisely when we need them most," said Gates.
In his testimony, Gates also said the U.S. needs to invest in new educational programs that encourage more students to pursue math, science, and technology fields, as well as recruit more math and science teachers.
"Our goal should be to double the number of science, technology, and mathematics graduates in the U.S. by 2015," he said. "For high schools, we should aim to recruit 10,000 new science and mathematics teachers annually and strengthen the skills of existing teachers."
In addition, to expand enrollment in post-secondary math and science programs, "each year we should provide 25,000 new undergraduate scholarships and 5,000 new graduate fellowships," he said.
"America's young people must come to see science and math degrees as the key to opportunity. If we fail at this, we will be unable to compete in the global economy," Gates said.