High-tech job increases marred by skills shortage

A recent report shows that the U.S. high-tech industry added new jobs during the first half of 2006. Experts agree that more gains can be made in expanding jobs in the sector, but they disagree on how.

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According to a report released last month by the nonprofit high-tech industry trade association AeA, 118,500 jobs were added to the U.S. high-tech industry between January and June of 2007, bringing the total to 5.94 million jobs.

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Based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics , the report splits the high-tech industry into four categories: high-tech manufacturing, communications services, software services, and engineering and tech services. Manufacturing showed the most modest gains, adding 1,800 jobs. Communications services were next, adding 12,900, followed by software services and engineering and tech services, which added 51,100 and 52,600 jobs, respectively.

AeA President and CEO William T. Archey noted that this is the "first year since the bursting of the high-tech bubble that all four tech sectors are experiencing job growth." On AeA's Web site, Archey also noted, "This benefits the U.S. economy greatly because tech industry wages pay 86 percent more than the average private sector wage and support numerous other jobs."

Other experts agree. "I have maintained a pretty optimistic perspective on the IT industry during and since the bust," commented consultant and IT career author Matt Moran in an email.

Long-term solutions to the talent crisis
Certainly, the U.S. high-tech industry has experienced job growth; and that may seem like the kind of good news that can stave off further offshore outsourcing. But Archey believes that the high-tech sector could be healthier if governmental efforts focused more on addressing the skilled labor shortage.

"We continue to believe tech industry job growth would be even more robust if U.S. policy makers were dealing with the challenges posed by heightened global competition and the lack of available qualified workers," Archey said.

Archey highlighted the America Competes Act as the kind of initiative he believes will make the high-tech industry more robust. Passed in August 2006, the legislation increases government funding of math and science educational initiatives. It authorizes, for example, grants designed to strengthen the skills of math and science teachers by establishing training and education programs at summer institutes hosted at the National Laboratories and Technology Centers.

Private action more effective than public funding
But Moran cautioned that the link between more funding in math and science education and the number of kids that choose that career path is a shaky one. "The real challenge -- while we are looking at upping funding for math -- is whether there is any evidence that funding in math and science in the public schools has a direct and meaningful impact on the number of kids who go into high-tech careers," Moran said.

Moran also noted that high-tech companies may face anticorporate sentiment, which could add to skill shortage woes. "College students . . . are really disinterested in careers in general or fit the typical disenfranchised 'Corporations are evil' mindset," he said.

Rather than increasing funding to bolster math and science programs in the hopes that talented youth take up high-tech careers, Moran believes that the industry also needs to take a greater role in cultivating employee skills. "Companies are struggling with the challenge that -- certainly in the computer industry -- college grads with a degree in some aspect of computer technology seldom walk in the door with any meaningful skills in this area," he said. "Most hi-tech [computer industry] workers start becoming valuable three to five years into their jobs. It was not the schooling but the companies' ability to cultivate talent once it walks in the door."

H-1B visas vs. homegrown talent
While the debate continues on how to expand jobs in the high-tech industry and address labor shortages over the long term, there's also some controversy about what to do in the short term.

Archey believes that, at least for the moment, authorizing more noncitizens to fill high-tech positions would be a step in the right direction. "Policy makers currently need to reform U.S. high-skilled visa policy. We should be attracting, not shunning, the best and brightest talent from around the world, either through temporary H-1B visas or permanent employment-based green cards. Instead, the United States places arbitrary caps on H-1Bs and imposes a time-consuming, bureaucratic process on obtaining green cards."

Moran disagrees on this approach as well, instead taking the position that more cooperation between government and corporations may lead to better cultivation of the talent already present in the U.S. "I think the government and corporations must work together to create meaningful internship programs -- programs that incorporate for credit into colleges," he said. "A meaningful internship program would be one where talent actually shadows and is mentored by the company and by those in their field of interest -- and that they actually work on projects related to their field."

Let us know what you think: E-mail Adam Trujillo with comments and feedback.

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