International Business Machines (IBM) Corp., worried the United States is losing its competitive edge, will financially back employees who want to leave the company to become math, science, or technology teachers, the company said.

IBM’s new program, announced Sept. 16. in concert with New York City and state education officials, reflects technology industry fears that U.S. students are falling behind their 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.

Forty percent of public school teachers plan to exit the profession within five years, the highest rate since at least 1990, according to a study released in August by the National Center for Education Information. The rate is expected to be even greater among high school teachers, half of whom plan to be out of teaching by 2010.

The projected turnover rate will deprive school districts of an enormous amount of teaching experience just as the U.S. pushes to get a top instructor in every class. 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. 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 their 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.

IBM’s announcement reflects a growing trend in which math, science, and technology experts are being trained to teach, as school systems expand their recruitment beyond colleges of education to other career fields.

Broadening this pool of prospective teachers will help fill the void of retiring teachers, said Michelle Rhee, president of The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group that helps some of the largest school districts recruit teachers.

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