Whoever Is Next President, IT Industry Expects Open Ear

Whoever Is Next President, IT Industry Expects Open Ear

George W. Bush

By Gail Repsher, Staff Writer

Representatives of the information technology industry are hoping that the next U.S. president, whether it be Texas Gov. George W. Bush or Vice President Al Gore, makes good on campaign promises to ease the nationwide shortage of IT workers.

Each candidate is proposing policy initiatives that the technology community likes, but neither has put together a total package of workplace-related proposals that industry has embraced.

"Both have some strong points, and if you could take the best of them, it would be an ideal world," said Bruce Hahn, director of public policy for the Computing Technology Industry Association, Lombard, Ill. The group represents more than 7,500 computer, IT services, telecommunications and Internet companies.

Other industry officials share Hahn's sentiment. While they want more opportunities for American worker education and training, they also want more H1-B visas that allow personnel-starved IT companies to bring skilled foreign workers to the United States.

"We're interested in seeing the development and promotion of any long-term initiative that's going to help grow the IT work force in the United States," said Marjorie Bynum, vice president of work force development for the 11,000-member Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va.

Both candidates are thinking seriously about the IT work force, and neither is outdoing the other, she said.

Gore's technology training initiatives focus on education tax credits for employers and employees. Gore, a Democrat, has proposed expanding the lifelong learning tax credit for private citizens. Gore would increase the credit from $5,000 to $10,000 annually for post-secondary education and training, according to spokesman Jano Cabrera.

In addition, Gore wants to establish 401(j) accounts for employees to set aside up to $2,500 tax free each year for training for themselves, their spouses or their children. Employers and grandparents also could contribute to the accounts.

"It's not all that different from a savings account, except you use it for training," Cabrera said.

Gore also has endorsed legislation that would provide employers an annual tax credit of up to 25 percent of the cost of IT training per employee, up to $6,000 annually for each employee, Cabrera said.

"We are hoping Gov. Bush will do the same," Hahn said.

Hahn and Cabrera said the tax credits would encourage employers to provide more training opportunities for employees.

"If you're paying $5,000 a course, and you have $100,000, you can train 20 people. If you bring the cost down to $4,000, you can train five more people," Hahn said. "You're not likely to decrease your [training] budget, you're going to train more people."

While Hahn said members of the Computing Technology Industry Association hope Bush, a Republican, would endorse the employer tax credit for information technology training, it is not certain he will do so.

"Bush has quite a comprehensive educational package, but there are some Republicans who are generally not in favor of tax credits," he said.

While "Gov. Bush supports the goal of encouraging technology training and worker retraining, he has not endorsed a specific bill pending in Congress," spokesman Ray Sullivan said. "He has put forth a significant package of tax relief that will help working people keep more of their money to use it as they see fit."

Bush's education platform aims at reducing the technology worker shortage in the long term. It includes a proposed $1 billion math and science partnership to join college and university educators with teachers in kindergarten through high school in an effort to improve math and science education. It also provides an additional $1,000 in college Pell grants for students who take rigorous math and science courses in high school.

Bush also wants a funding increase of $345 million over five years for college loan forgiveness for science, math, engineering and technology students who teach in high-needs schools for up to five years, Sullivan said. Currently, those students can have $5,000 in loans forgiven; Bush wants to raise their loan forgiveness cap to $17,500.

For training beyond the college years, Bush has called for $80 million in federal grant money, matched with state and local funds, to establish more than 2,000 technology training centers in communities around the country. He wants to set aside other funds to help nonprofit and faith-based organizations conduct technology training programs, Sullivan said.

"Both of those [programs] would assist in citizens and communities with work force development and worker retraining," Sullivan said.

Industry representatives also want the number of H1-B visas to increase substantially. At the program's current level, all 115,000 visas for fiscal 2000, which ends Sept. 30, were used by March.

Thom Stohler said the visas will go even faster in fiscal 2001. "They'll be gone before Christmas," said Stohler, director of work force policy for the Washington and Santa Clara, Calif.-based American Electronics Association, whose 3,000 member companies represent all sectors of the high-tech industry.

Gore believes the number of visas should be increased to 200,000 annually through fiscal 2003, Cabrera said.

Stohler said he recalls a Bush proposal that advocates raising the number of H1-B visas to 160,000 or 170,000 annually. However, Bush spokesman Ray Sullivan said that while the Texas governor does support an increase in the number of H1-B visas, he has not specified a new limit on the number of visas or the length of the visa program.

"Congress is working to determine the appropriate number," Sullivan said. That number has not been finalized yet on Capitol Hill, but is almost certain to expand beyond the existing 115,000 cap.

Although Bush has not put forth a specific H1-B visa proposal, Hahn said he thinks Bush is more sympathetic with the views of industry executives on the H1-B issue than is Gore, who has strong ties to labor groups.

"Some of the trade unions do not want the H1-B visas to be used to undercut American jobs, and I think that is more of Gore's concern," Hahn said.

The H1-B visa issue is critical in a region where 23,000 technology jobs are unfilled, said Susan Baker, director of work force development for the Northern Virginia Technology Council.

"If you polled our technology members, they really feel that this is something in the short term they just have to have," she said.

Stohler said the number of H1-B visas should be raised to a "realistic level" of at least 200,000 annually.

"The number of graduates in engineering and computer science has been going down since the 1980s," Stohler said. "With education down and need [for IT workers] up, we need H1-B visas to bridge the gap. Even if we have the perfect education reform, and it's implemented today, we're not going to see the results for five to 10 years. So that's the problem."

Hahn said the number of visas "should be as many as are needed."

"Even after we have addressed the [American] skills shortage, we think there are also brilliant foreign workers who should be allowed to come to the United States," Hahn said. "What that number [of visas] is, I don't know, but clearly, as we hear from all of our members from Intel to Microsoft, there is a huge shortage."

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