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
"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
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
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
"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,
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.
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
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.
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
"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.
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
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