Worker Training Gains Political Momentum

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Worker Training Gains Political Momentum

By Neil Munro
Staff Writer

Government officials must help eliminate an impending shortage of technology workers by moving education funds toward high-technology training and away from liberal arts programs, according to Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the chief Senate backer of a new industry-government effort to promote worker training.

But "it will take a sharp battle ... to get them to give up their funds," Warner told a Sept. 29 meeting organized by the departments of Commerce and Education and by the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America.

The meeting was the first public step in an ambitious joint campaign to increase information technology education and training. In January, industry, federal, state and local officials will meet in Berkeley, Calif., to hear recommendations from six government-industry panels on ways to boost the supply of trained workers. Industry officials said recommendations could become law in numerous states.

The panels will recommend ways to improve students' math skills, the image of the information technology profession, cooperation between industry and higher-education organizations, the productivity of U.S. software experts, adult education, the recruitment of women and of ethnic or racial minorities.

To support the campaign, Warner has won Senate approval of an amendment setting up a congressional commission on work force issues. If the amendment is approved by the House, the commission could be established next year.

Government officials also released a new report at the Sept. 29 session, which predicted that the nation's high-tech industry would face a massive shortfall of skilled workers by 2005. Between 1994 and 2005, the industry's employment rolls will grow by 1 million, up to 2.2 million workers, said the report, "American's New Deficit: The Shortage of Information Technology Workers."

According to the report, only 24,500 people gained degrees in information technology skills during 1994, down 40 percent from the 1986 total. Another 15,187 people earned qualifications less than bachelor's degrees in information technology during 1994.

The shortage of workers has already driven up wage levels and threatens the future of the industry, said industry officials. The shortage "threatens wage stability, which is the bedrock of low inflation," said Harris Miller, president of the ITAA. In February, the ITAA released a report saying information technology companies face an existing shortfall of 190,000 workers.

But the increase in wages "is a reality check for companies," said Paul Kostek, an independent consultant in Seattle who chairs the career policy council of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers-USA. By laying off many skilled workers in the late 1980s, and by treating workers as short-term contractors, companies have deterred students from entering the field and have prompted skilled workers to sell their services to the highest bidder, he said.

Any worker shortage can be redressed by the marketplace and by retraining workers to use each new technology as it arrives, he said. "Government should be a resource of information [about training programs and job opportunities]. ... I don't think there is a need for government to jump in there with extra spending," said Kostek.

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