Lawmakers introduce bill to increase technical workforce

October 16, 2001

WASHINGTON– Senators Joe Lieberman (D-CT), Christopher Bond (R-MO), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Bill Frist (R-TN), and Pete Domenici (R-NM) and today introduced the “Tech Talent bill,” aimed at increasing the number of scientists, engineers, and technologists in the United States. House Science Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Rep. John Larson (D-CT) introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives.

The decline in our technical workforce is becoming a major U.S. economic problem. Recent studies project that the number of jobs requiring significant technical skills will grow by more than 50 percent in the United States over the next ten years. However, outside of the life sciences, the number of degrees awarded in science and engineering over the last decade has been flat or declining.

This legislation aims to address the problem by establishing a competitive grant program at the National Science Foundation that rewards universities, colleges and community colleges pledging to increase the number of U.S. citizens or permanent residents obtaining degrees in science, math, engineering and technology (SMET) fields.

“The reality is that technological innovation is now widely understood to be the major driver of economic growth, not to mention a critical factor in our military superiority,” Lieberman said. “And it is widely understood that we cannot expand our economy in the future if we don’t take steps now to expand our domestic pool of brainpower, the next generation of people who will incubate and implement the next generation of ideas.”

“America’s history has shown that science unlocks the door to a better tomorrow,” Bond said. “This legislation will help America remain the world’s leader in scientific research.”

“We don’t have a worker shortage in this country, we have a skill shortage,” Mikulski said. “And we will continue to have a skill shortage unless we act now. We need to make sure America is ready for the new high-tech economy. The opportunities are tremendous to use science, math and engineering to greatly improve our lives, but we need to engage the next generation in these studies in order to ensure America’s success. This grant program is an investment in our nation’s future.”

“Over the last decade, our nation’s economy has grown increasingly dependent on a workforce highly trained in science, mathematics, engineering and technology,” Frist said. ” If graduation rates in these fields continue to decline, the U.S. economy could face a real crisis as it struggles to compete globally. We must do more to attract American students to pursue these rewarding studies, and I’m hopeful that through the ‘Tech Talent Bill’ our colleges and universities will be able to improve enrollment numbers. The sciences are critical to America’s economic success.”

“Innovation is especially critical today at a time when our economy has shown significant weaknesses. We need to continue to look toward our ability to innovate, to bring new products and processes to the market place, to help spur recovery,” Domenici said. “One of the very key factors is the existence of a well-qualified workforce, ready to support high technology industries. We need to excite more students to pursue technical careers. We need to do far better at showing students the opportunities that can open for them if they pursue technical paths in their education.”

“This past year, we have focused primarily on building a strong foundation – reforming K-12 math and science education and giving our nation’s children the opportunities to succeed in today’s increasingly technical world,” Boehlert said. “The next step toward ensuring our children’s success, and our future economic growth, is strengthening undergraduate math, science and engineering. This bill takes that step, and I look forward to working closely with Professor Romer, my colleagues on the Senate side, and my good friend from the Science Committee, Congressman Larson, to enact this legislation.”

“In the wake of September 11, we must remember that there is a strong connection to be made between our national security and the level of science and technology proficiency in America,” Larson said. “Our strength and leadership in the world is based on the might of our defense, the strength of our economy, and the quality of our education system. Without any of these three components the global preeminence of the nation suffers. With our high schools and universities producing fewer and fewer students either specializing in or gaining their degree in engineering, math, science and the field of technology, action must be taken.”

Industry supporters of the legislation include TechNet, a national network of CEOs and senior executives from the leading technology and biotechnology companies, Al Berkeley, Vice Chair of NASDAQ, the National Alliance of Business, Texas Instruments and General Electric. Educational supporters of the legislation include K-12 Science Mathematics, Engineering and Technology Coalition, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and the American Astronomical Society. Renowned growth economist, Paul Romer, of Stanford University, also backs the Tech Talent bill.

“A well-prepared workforce coupled with a strong emphasis on R&D is the only way to ensure a healthier, economically solid, and technologically advanced future for America,” Barksdale, Doerr and Rick White wrote, in a TechNet letter of support for the Tech Talent bill. “We appreciate your steadfast support of policies toward this end, and we urge you to press forward with this legislation in both chambers.”

“The threat to our long-term economic strength is very real,” Berkeley said. “Trends in Europe and Asia show that governments there have perceived the important economic benefits of technological innovation. Almost as important as the dollars spent on R&D, is the investment in the renewal of our human intellectual capital that we have to make remain competitive.”

“Your bill can begin our return to worldwide leadership in undergraduate science and engineering education,” Romer wrote, in a letter of support for the Tech Talent bill. “It will reward colleges and universities that devote more effort to teaching, that develop innovative instructional materials, that pull students into science instead of ‘weeding them out.'”

The pilot program, which will award three-year grants, is authorized at $25 million in FY02 with funding expected to increase in the future. The sponsors estimate that a funding range of $200 million a year may be reached depending on pilot program results.