S From CNN Is there a homegrown solution to the IT-labor shortage? June 17, 1999 Web posted at: 2:57 p.m. EDT (1857 GMT) by Deborah Radcliff (IDG) -- The U.S. opens its doors to let in an extra 50,000 foreign information technology workers -- while the domestic labor pool stays underdeveloped. What's wrong with that picture? "We see a shortage of IT workers and think we'll meet our needs by importing foreign workers. But we don't bite the bullet to make the changes we need to make here in the U.S.," says Kelly Carnes, deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Commerce Department. "It would be a tragedy if we reserve all of the best-paying, challenging-growth jobs [for] non-Americans," she says. Carnes is referring to the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act, which last year nearly doubled the quota of H-1B visas granted to temporary IT workers arriving from foreign countries. But rather than having our government allowing more foreign workers to fill U.S. technology jobs, many say that government and private industry should instead be focusing on developing a deeper domestic labor pool by offering training tax credits and revamping the education system. If you believe the numbers, more than 1 million new IT jobs will be filled between 1994 and 2005, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A temporary salve Thus far, government involvement in the IT labor-shortage problem has been limited to raising the number of foreigners granted H-1B visas from 65,000 to 115,000 this year and next. But we're already close to reaching that cap for 1999. According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, 103,753 H-1B visa applications had been approved by the end of April. And there are rumors that stressed-out businesses may soon lobby for more. But instead of importing more foreign workers, government and businesses should focus their attention on the U.S. education system and employee training, Carnes and others say. "We understand that businesses need to get people quickly. But at the same time, there needs to be some safeguard for U.S. workers," says Vin O'Neill, a policy analyst at the Washington-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Carnes argues that the government shouldn't be called upon to solve the labor-shortage problem because it's a private-industry issue. Many IT managers agree. Talent search "Like most people hiring in technology jobs, finding qualified applicants amid such competition is [difficult]," says Marc Tower, director of research and development at Lyon, France-based Esker SA, a purveyor of business-host Web access and fax servers. But the problem for most IT managers is that they're underinformed, experts say. Their days are too crammed with the business of technology for them to address the IT labor shortage on the national scale it deserves. Unless they're a large IT shop or an influential technology vendor, most employers don't have anyone to push the issue on Capitol Hill, says Matt Gillman, director of network and distributed systems at Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Washington. "Our issues, in terms of government policy, are all about the health care industry. We're spending our time and energy just doing our work," he says. Instead of lobbying the government for workforce assistance, Blue Cross is handling the skills shortage internally through a strong, tuition reimbursement program of its own design. More companies should follow that lead, experts say. Continuous training is among the top three retention incentives IT workers seek, according to a Computerworld Job Satisfaction Survey of 511 IT professionals (see "Job satisfaction survey," link below). If companies adopted employee life-cycle training programs, the problem just might resolve itself without government intervention, Carnes suggests. Unfortunately, most small to midsize companies lack the money for such training. And when a company does buff up an employee's skills, it risks losing that newly trained worker to a higher-paying job elsewhere, Tower says. Government's role That's where government can help. In fact, a new tax bill is in the works that would reimburse companies for training their technical workers. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) introduced a bill in February that would create tax credits to reimburse businesses for up to $6,000 in training expenses per IT worker per year. According to a spokesperson at the senator's office, the Conrad Bill will be attached to the next tax package that goes through Congress. No date has yet been set. Tower says his company would welcome such a tax incentive; Gillman says the $6,000 figure is reflective of annual per-employee training costs. A number of industry groups have also been pushing for help recruiting and training underutilized employees such as women, minorities and older workers. In fact, they'd like to see that tax incentive used to train such groups. The IEEE's O'Neill is among those who contend that older engineers and scientists are being forced into early retirement by younger, lower-paid workers. The IEEE is lobbying to extend Section 127 income tax exclusion for employers providing educational assistance. It sees tax breaks like the 127 exclusion, combined with Conrad's legislation, as ways to help companies retool older workers. Such assistance could have helped 50-year-old Robert Tufty, a mathematical engineer in Rockville, Md., who was making $65,000 per year doing C++ and Visual Basic programming until he was "downsized four years ago by a twentysomething," he says. Tufty has since started his own technology development business. Carolyn Leighton, director at Los Angeles-based Women in Technology International (WITI), says her organization would like to see companies use tax incentives to train more women and minorities. It's elementary Another area that government can and should work on is public education, Carnes says -- especially now that U.S. high-schoolers rank 18th in the world in math and science. "When we have an education system that stacks up poorly in math and science even [compared with] developing countries, we have a fundamental problem," says Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA). The ITAA, along with the National Alliance of Business and Education Development Center, sponsors the Techforce Initiative. Techforce is a two-year, national project aimed at expanding IT business involvement in school-to-work partnerships. Other industry groups are also getting more involved with U.S. public and private elementary and high schools. Hands off Of course, Washington is experiencing its own IT labor shortage. For that and other reasons, IT managers and private-sector groups say they don't want Washington dictating solutions to their problems. "Frankly, government intervention scares me," says Esker's Tower, who frequently speaks to IT classes at a local college. "Right now, we're in a cycle where it's a sellers' market for IT workers. At some point, it will cycle back." Carnes agrees. She contends that government involvement should be limited to publicizing the issues, opening dialogues, revealing best practices and removing roadblocks such as poor legislation. In fact, Carnes has spent the last year talking to IT managers to flush out labor-shortage problems and best-practice solutions. One answer she's found particularly helpful is the idea of collaborative "skills alliances," in which small businesses work together to grow a pool of qualified workers. "We could use a piece of bipartisan legislation [that] would provide federal seed funding to help support creation of these kinds of skills alliances," she adds. Next month, Carnes will issue a compilation of the results of those meetings. In the meantime, she's posted some best-practices results on the Web (see "Go for IT!", link below). The ideas were harvested from companies that participated in so-called town meetings. It's obvious that there are no simple solutions to the IT labor shortage. But America's position in the global economy depends on how quickly it builds up its domestic army of technology workers, Carnes warns. "Businesses had better pay attention to these issues. Look at India: They have an English-speaking, middle-class population two times our entire population - and they're graduating twice as many scientists, engineers and technologists as we are. [The U.S.] already probably is losing competitive ground," she says. Deborah Radcliff is a freelance writer in the San Francisco area.