Gates: Get U.S. schools in order

Microsoft chairman says China, others are coming on strong, and the U.S. risks losing its advantage.

SEATTLE--Six years ago, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer caused a mild panic in the stock market by telling a group of business writers that, in his blunt opinion, share prices were wildly overvalued.

Speaking Monday to the same group of journalists here, Chairman Bill Gates avoided any such immediately inflammatory words. Instead, he prefaced a quick tour through technology trends with a warning that the United States is in grave danger of losing its economic advantages to fast-growing nations like China, unless the country restores its lead in education and other policies supporting growth.

"If you look at the trend 10 years ago, the U.S. and China were not that different in terms of the number of engineers graduated," Gates said. "Now we have one-quarter the number of engineers, and the trend is continuing, with the U.S. number going down, and China going up quite a bit...We need to improve our own game, to make sure own slice of the pie stays very large."

Gates is among a handful of technology executives who have issued periodic warnings that the United States is in danger of losing its mantle as high-tech center of the world as the skills of other countries catch up or even surpass those of American workers.

Cisco Systems and Intel executives also have cast recent spotlights on the need to improve schools, and particularly math and science education, in order to remain competitive.

In his speech to the Society of American Business Editors & Writers on Monday, Gates noted that post-Sept. 11, 2001, rules have made it harder for foreign students to come to the United States, and have resulted in as much as a 30 percent drop in enrollment from some areas--another factor he said would ultimately hurt U.S. competitiveness.

He has previously called for an increase in the number of foreign citizens who are allowed into the country to work under so-called H-1B visas.

Alongside the warnings, Gates gave business writers a short list of technologies he thought would fundamentally change computing--and the broader culture--at least as much as the first stirrings of the mainstream Internet changed life during the boom years.

Falling fiber-optics prices, the ability of any companies' software to talk to any other's through XML or Web services interoperability standards, the next generation of 64-bit computing, and improvements in

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