International Business Machines Corp., worried the United States is losing its competitive edge, will financially back employees who want to leave the company to become math and science teachers.
The new program, being announced Friday in concert with city and state education officials, reflects tech industry fears that U.S. students are falling behind peers from Bangalore to Beijing in the sciences.
Up to 100 IBM employees will be eligible for the program in its trial phase. Eventually, Big Blue hopes many more of its tech savvy employees — and those in other companies — will follow suit.
The goal is to help fill shortfalls in the nation's teaching ranks, a problem expected to grow with the retirement of today's educators.
Math and science are of particular concern to companies in many U.S. industries that expect to need technical workers but see low test scores in those subjects and waning interest in science careers.
"Over a quarter-million math and science teachers are needed, and it's hard to tell where the pipeline is," said Stanley Litow, head of the IBM Foundation, the Armonk, N.Y.-based company's community service wing. "That is like a ticking time bomb not just for technology companies, but for business and the U.S. economy."
While many companies encourage their employees to tutor schoolchildren or do other things to get involved in education, IBM believes it is the first to guide workers toward switching into a teaching career.
The company expects older workers nearing retirement to be the most likely candidates, partly because they would have more financial wherewithal to take the pay cut that becoming a teacher likely would entail.
The workers would have to get approval from their managers to participate. If selected, the employees would be allowed to take a leave of absence from the company, which includes full benefits and up to half their salary, depending on length of service.
In addition, the employees could get up to $15,000 in tuition reimbursements and stipends while they seek teaching credentials and begin student-teaching.
From then on, the IBM people would become school employees — the program will encourage them to work in public schools but they can go private if they wish — and leave Big Blue's payroll. But IBM plans to offer a mentoring program that would give its former workers guidance and teaching materials over the Internet.
"It's not an easy transition to make," said Litow, a former deputy schools chancellor in New York City.
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