- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2008

America risks losing its status as a leader in technological innovation unless it allows more skilled workers to enter the country, Microsoft Chairman and founder Bill Gates warned lawmakers today.

Mr. Gates also called on Congress to increase federal funding of research and development and take steps to reform secondary education.

“We all want the U.S. to continue to be the world’s center for innovation, but our position is at risk,” he said. “U.S. companies face a severe shortfall of scientists and engineers with expertise to develop the next generation of breakthroughs.”

Mr. Gates has long been an advocate of reforming the H-1B visa program for skilled workers. The program’s annual cap of 65,000 was met last year on the first day applications were accepted. At Microsoft, one-third of foreign job candidates were unable to obtain visas last year, Mr. Gates said.

To solve the problem, he said, lawmakers should raise the H1-GB visa cap, increase the length of time foreign students of American colleges and universities are allowed to remain in the country upon graduation and create a path toward permanent residency.

“It makes no sense to educate people in our U.S. universities — and then insist that they return home,” he said. “These top people are going to be hired. It’s just a question of what country they do their work in.”

Five additional U.S. jobs are created to support each foreign worker, he said.

Aside from immigration rules, Mr. Gates stressed the need to improve U.S. secondary education, noting that America’s high school graduation rates are among the lowest of the industrialized world.

“I think what we owe to the kids is to have teachers who have proven that they can make the subject engaging,” he said, praising charter schools for giving teachers more freedom to experiment. Interest in math and science is particularly low among women and minorities, he noted.

Mr. Gates urged Congress to fully fund the America Competes Act, which was passed last year and calls for a doubling of federal funding of basic research over the next decade.

To encourage private-sector investment, he said lawmakers should reinstitute the federal tax credit for research and, which expired last year.

He also endorsed trade pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has come under fire recently by Democratic presidential candidates.

“I’m very concerned that people not think that free trade agreements, on balance, are a bad thing for this country,” he said. “I think we need to explain that to the voters because the biggest winner in the free trade system has been the United States and the companies that have been able to lead and have much bigger markets than ever before.”

The remarks before the House Committee on Science and Technology came as the panel celebrated its 50th anniversary. Mr. Gates, who founded Microsoft in 1975, is stepping down from his role at the software giant this summer to focus full-time on his charity, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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