Industry Must Heal ItselfThe news last week that the White House has launched an initiative to fund the training of computer professionals sparked widespread interest throughout the high-tech indust

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Industry Must Heal Itself

The news last week that the White House has launched an initiative to fund the training of computer professionals sparked widespread interest throughout the high-tech industry and at all levels of government.

At the outset of an industry-government national information technology work force convocation in California, Vice President Al Gore's promised Jan. 12 to spend an extra $28 million on IT training.

The Clinton administration once again proved its penchant for scoring considerable media attention, garnering headlines in major newspapers and on TV.

But is the Clinton administration's latest initiative anything more than a symbolic gesture?

While it is a start, $28 million won't go very far in solving the multibillion-dollar problem facing the nation's fastest-growing and most promising new industry.

That $28 million is but a drop in the ocean of existing federal spending. Indeed, the Labor Department handed out more than $3 billion in education and training grants during 1997.

Yet more billions are being spent by other agencies to train their own workers, and even more billions are distributed via education tax breaks as well as state and local spending.

In announcing the initiative, Gore's office quoted Labor Department projections that the demand for computer scientists, engineers and systems analysts would double over the next 10 years, an increase of more than 1 million high-skill, high-wage jobs.

But if the White House accepts industry's frequent claim that it lacks up to 150,000 high-tech experts, there's more it can do to help solve the worker shortages problem.

For example, it could try to lift the cap on temporary immigration of skilled workers, which is set at 65,000. Such a move is strongly supported by the industry-backed Information Technology Association of America.

However, the administration has said it will not try this controversial step, which is opposed by unions and some professional associations of infotech workers - which fear that wages will decline as the supply of skilled workers rises.

Also, the administration could offer companies more tax breaks for training their workers, ask Congress to appropriate more money, or create financial incentives for students to use their grant money to buy an education in hard sciences instead of social sciences.

These are steps with significant economic or political price tags that are not easily taken amid the horde of special interests that subsist on existing federal programs.

And if the White House doesn't propose these steps, Congress won't even consider them, because the Republicans have other priorities, including election-year tax cuts.

On the other hand, perhaps the IT industry - which testifies frequently that its success is largely due to minimal government involvement - should put its money where its mouth is.

Companies as disparate as IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Vortex Data Systems, a San Diego-based infotech reseller, are already doing much training on their own. They're linking up with local schools and training centers, offering no-cost introductory training to new hires, investing heavily in their existing workers and urging reform of local government education spending.

Industry certainly should be thankful for two new laws approved last year by the White House and Congress that give tax breaks to students attending community colleges and to workers trying to expand their skills. The information technology industry will likely benefit from these new laws as workers are drawn into the high-tech sector by steadily rising pay scales.

Industry's labor-shortage problem won't be solved by the extra $28 million, nor can it be solved by government action in the short term.

For the moment, there's no alternative to investing in workers, moving work overseas or paying whatever salary the best workers demand.

Copyright 1998 Post-Newsweek Business Information, Inc. All rights reserved


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