Give Microsoft Its Due for Addressing Tech Skills Shortage


Back in 2007, I wrote about a Harvard Business School professor's contention that the shrinking number of U.S. college students studying engineering and computer science, along with a growing number of Chinese and Indian engineering students, presented "the greatest single threat to American prosperity." I shared some scary statistics, including a study by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute that showed the number of incoming U.S. college freshmen intending to major in computer science dropped by 70 percent between 2000 and 2005.


I interviewed Christine Bullen of the Stevens School of Technology Management, who suggested who suggested that private companies, government entities and U.S. universities needed to work together to promote IT as a career. That's exactly what appears to be happening with a three-year, Microsoft-funded job training program called Elevate America.


As the Seattle Times reports, the company is working with state governments to distribute vouchers for Microsoft eLearning courses and select certification exams, such as those leading to Microsoft business certification. It will work with each state to determine how many and what kind of classes and certification exams will be offered for free and at reduced prices, with decisions based upon the demonstrated needs of each state. First up: Washington, followed by Florida and New York. It dovetails nicely with the broader federally funded economic stimulus.


For somewhat less technically inclined types, Microsoft launched a Web site that helps folks assess which technical skills may improve their job prospects and create a plan for obtaining them. It also provides some instruction in tech basics such as using the Internet and e-mail. I think that's an important piece to the jobs puzzle, considering that not all career opportunities require an engineering degree or even a college degree but simply some basic technical acumen. In a post from April, I discussed AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson's contention that his company was having trouble finding enough Americans with the right kinds of skills to fill technical support positions it was shifting from India back to the U.S. I wrote:

Many folks don't have the inclination or the financial resources to attend college. They need to know that if they apply themselves in high school, they can still get a decent entry-level job -- albeit not one where they can expect to make six figures.

This kind of effort is needed in light of the fact that China, India and other emerging economies are making heavy investments in boosting tech proficiency among their residents, as I noted in this post. I cited a Christian Science Monitor article in which a VP with the non-profit Asia Society compared educational efforts in emerging economies to the one that occurred after World War II in the U.S., when the government paid to educate veterans and invested heavily in the public education system.


It's nice to see Microsoft putting some philanthropic money where its mouth is. Microsoft hasn't revealed the cost of the program but said it's "substantial." Not that it won't benefit, of course. Getting more Microsoft-certified tech pros in the field is a good thing for the company, and it'll likely welcome the positive PR following Sen. Chuck Grassley's (R-IA) recent questioning about its use of H-1B visas. The company has said all along that it and other high-tech employers need more H-1Bs because of a "critical shortage" of Americans with the right kinds of skills.


Like many folks, I get pretty sick of all the Microsoft vs. Google stories. But philanthropy is one area in which I'd like to see their competition heat up. (And I'd like to see more tech companies, which all tend to get beaten up on the H-1B issue, doing so as well.) Nothing wrong with establishing a venture capital arm to provide financial assistance to tech start-ups, as Google did last year, or lobbying for policies encouraging clean energy as the search giant did last week, but I like Microsoft's cut-to-the-chase approach of helping job seekers obtain or improve tech education.