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Tech firms call on lawmakers to invest in STEM ed, reform immigration

Representatives from Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon tell Democratic members of Congress they need a better-educated and more diverse workforce to stay competitive in the global economy.

Philadelphia plays host to the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Philadelphia plays host to the DNC.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Tech companies called Wednesday for the federal government to invest in more STEM education and reform immigration policies, recurring themes the industry hopes to influence in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

Representatives of Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon said they face difficulties finding qualified staff, a handicap they believe other US companies face and that threatens the strength of American industry. The issue is so widespread that it affects fields outside of technology, including pharmaceuticals and health care, they said.

"This is no longer a Microsoft, Facebook or Amazon issue," Brad Smith, Microsoft's chief legal officer said at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation's panel in Philadelphia, where the Democratic National Convention is being held. "Companies are only as good as the people we hire."

Silicon Valley has warned that the lack of rigorous STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- education in the country has the potential to make US companies uncompetitive. Technology groups have also started programs to get young people, as well as women and minorities, interested in the field.

President Barack Obama unveiled in January a three-year, $4 billion budget proposal to provide states with money to train teachers, equip classrooms and develop classroom materials for STEM education. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has also called for more funding for STEM education, including more school technology courses, grants for teachers pursuing STEM subjects and financial aid for students studying computer coding and related subjects.

David Zapolsky, Amazon's general counsel, acknowledged that companies have an obligation to invest in training for their employees to ensure their skills are up to snuff. But the government, he said, also needs to invest in preparing students for careers in technology.

The panel also included Erin Egan, a chief privacy officer for Facebook, who added that affordable broadband access is also an important component to ensuring a prepared workforce.

"Infrastructure is a key pillar this agenda," she said.

The participants also called on the government to reform immigration laws so that people who come to the US for education can stay and work after they complete their degrees. Like STEM education, immigration reform is a key item on Silicon Valley's agenda.