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Key Import: Keen Minds

Shortage of high-tech workers drives debate about visas and the direction of America's 21st-century workplace.

By Paul Van SlambrouckStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 23, 1998



SAN FRANCISCO

Ravi Krishnan just might be the one to thank for the phone call that went through, the passenger jet that landed safely, or the stock sale executed without a hitch.

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But the software engineer, who specializes in making the computer operating systems used in some stock exchanges, telecommunications networks, and air-traffic-control systems less likely to crash, is at the center of an exploding debate.

Should the US increase its reliance on immigrants like Mr. Krishnan to fuel its technology boom, and if not, what are the consequences? The emerging Information Age, while creating remarkable wealth and opportunity, is also generating new political and social tensions.

President Clinton said as much earlier this month while heralding a February unemployment rate that was the lowest in a quarter century. "The new economy is increasingly driven by creativity, innovation, and technology, with high-skill jobs growing at nearly three times the rate of other jobs.... The hunt for employees with high-tech skills is becoming more and more intense. There are hundreds of thousands of vacancies."

Filling those vacancies, in the short-term, is pitting the growing political strength of the technology sector against the traditional muscle of big labor, as well as groups opposed to increased immigration. And filling them in the long term is spurring new thinking among government, schools, and industry.

The Commerce Department predicts a demand for more than 1 million new information-technology workers during the next decade. That's stacked on top of nearly 350,000 current openings in the field, according to the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), based in Arlington, Va..

A necessary quick fix?

The immediate flash point is a legislative effort to fill the top-end jobs by expanding a program that permits 65,000 immigrants each year under H-1B visas. (H-1B visas cover specialized occupations such as software engineers and athletes.) A bill sponsored by Sen. Spencer Abraham (R) of Michigan would expand the visa limit to about 90,000 and also remove some professions from the main category, thereby increasing the potential number for the technology sector.

For Silicon Valley and the technology industry in general, a higher limit is the top work-force issue of the year and in some respects, a test of the industry's emerging political strength.

It's also a sign to some that technology and the Washington establishment are only now beginning to understand one another. Wade Randlett, an organizer of a monthly round table with technology leaders and Vice President Al Gore, says: "The H1-B visa is not one of the things we'd even be discussing if we'd been talking the way we should [have] a year ago."

The culture clash between the technology industry, which is used to moving at warp speed, and more-seasoned power players like labor is evident. Jack Golodner, president of the Department for Professional Employees of the AFL-CIO, says the whole issue deserves more time and thought. "It's badly thought out. It's being done in a panic."