National Commission Sports Local Talent

National Commission Sports Local Talent

Kathy Clark

By Marianne Dunn, Staff Writer

A congressionally mandated commission that will study ways to solve the national shortage of information technology workers includes two local officials eager to kick off their work, possibly later this summer.

Kathy Clark, chief executive officer of Landmark Systems Corp., Vienna, Va., and Frank Riggs, a former Republican congressman from California and fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, are among the local officials appointed to the 15-member commission.

"I've never been part of a commission like this, so I don't know what to expect," said Clark, who is hopeful that the commission will develop strategies to lessen the IT labor crunch in Northern Virginia. "My hope is that we will take a practical and pragmatic approach to the problem and come up with solid recommendations. It is a real problem, and it needs real solutions."

The 21st Century Workforce Commission is charged with examining the nation's information technology worker shortage and presenting its findings to the president and Congress within six months of its initial session.

The panel stems from the Workforce Investment and Partnership Act signed by President Clinton in August 1998.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., sponsored the legislation that established the commission. Other commission members include:

  • Thomas Murrin, president of Duquesne University's A.J. Palumbo School of Business in Pittsburgh;

  • Susan Auld, former commissioner of the Vermont Department of Employment and Training;
  • Randel Johnson, vice president for labor policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce;

  • Morton Bahr, president of the Communications Workers of America;

  • Lawrence Perlman, chairman and chief executive officer of Ceridian Corp.;

  • Kenneth Saxe, founder of Saxe Technology, York, Pa.

  • Bobby Jarvin, president of Mississippi Delta Community College, Moorhead;

  • Frank Roberts, mayor of Lancaster, Calif.

The legislation called for the president, the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the House to split appointments to the commission. Only three of Clinton's appointees have been announced so far; the other two await security clearances. Of the remaining appointments, eight have been made, congressional officials said.

Until all of the appointments are made, the group cannot schedule its first meeting. But two ex-officio, non-voting members already have prepared a charter for the members to review and approve as soon as the commission is complete. They are Susan Green, deputy assistant secretary for policy and acting secretary for policy at the Labor Department, and Patricia McNeil, assistant secretary for vocational and adult education at the Education Department.

Although some commission appointments still are pending, several participants were optimistic that the panel would meet later this summer. In the meantime, some members are focusing on education initiatives they hope can make a difference.

Clark estimated that most technology companies in the region cannot find suitable IT workers to fill at least 10 percent of their positions. That is certainly the case at Landmark, a software company with 300 employees, where 20 to 30 IT positions are vacant at any time, she said.

A study conducted by George Mason University, Fairfax, Va., last fall found that about 18,000 IT jobs were vacant in Northern Virginia. The problem is a critical lack of qualified IT professionals, Clark said.

"Technology companies need people who have several years of experience," she said. Thus, initiatives like the Northern Virginia Regional Partnership, which trains people for IT jobs and has helped hundreds switch occupations midcareer, have failed to solve in the problem, she said.

The Northern Virginia Regional Partnership, a non-profit organization funded by the state, works closely with the Northern Virginia Technology Council to provide IT training to residents in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties.

The Information Technology Association of America, an industry trade group in Arlington Va., reports that U.S. technology companies have about 346,000 vacant IT positions. That figure does not include other businesses that cannot fill their IT departments.

Clark said one recommendation she will put before the commission is for high-tech companies to consider partnering with local educational facilities.

Her company participates in a partnership program with George Mason known as Top HATS, which recruits high-ability transfer students from community and junior colleges across the nation with the promise of free academic rides funded by participating businesses. The tech companies pledge $10,000 per student per year, and students spend their summers interning with their sponsors.

"We give them real-world training so when they graduate, we are ready to hire them," said Clark. "If we hire two of those students, we've come out way ahead, since the cost of recruiting is more than $30,000 per person."

Commission member Roger Knutsen, president of the National Education Association's National Council for Higher Education and an instructor at Green River Community College, Auburn, Wash., agreed that education is key to solving the shortage.

But Knutsen, who was appointed to the commission by Clinton, said recruiting students for IT training programs is not enough, since many of them stay with the programs long enough to grasp IT basics, then grab a high-paying job.

After one year of coursework, they are hirable, Knutsen said. Hirable, but not promotable. When students leave midprogram, he said, they hit a wall; they need the communications and liberal arts skills they lack because they did not finish their educations.

Riggs, who served on the House education committee, said educators repeatedly told members of Congress that students need at least 14 years of education to be considered technically competent by a prospective employer. Riggs, who attended hearings in northern California and Washington during the 105th Congress to gauge the needs of the emerging technology industry, wants the commission to determine if public schools are responding to the needs of the high-tech industry in helping to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow. So far, he said, that answer is they are not.

"It just amazes and galls me that we have thousands of high-tech job positions going unfilled in the local economy, yet nearby ? literally a few miles from where those jobs are located ? we have thousand of young people living lives of despair in impoverished circumstances," he said.

The bridge between those two worlds, he said, "and the key to being one of the haves as opposed to being a have not, is a good education, including the appropriate technical training a prospective employer would find essential."

Riggs said he was surprised by the amount of time it has taken to get the commission off the ground.

"I almost forgot about it," said Riggs, who was appointed to the commission by Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker. But a few weeks ago, he got a phone call related to the commission, he said.

Riggs and others said the commission's kick-off session may be held this summer, though no firm date has been set.

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