Senate grapples with high-tech 'labor gap'

Businesses want 200,000 foreign workers, but critics say people here can fill the jobs.

Flush from a victory on the China trade bill, the business community is wasting no time in pushing Congress to move on its next major area of concern: the high-tech labor shortage.

If the Senate takes up a foreign-worker bill - a decision it is expected to make soon - the move would represent something of a coup for the high-tech industry. Business groups are lobbying hard to bring 200,000 additional workers to the US to fill what they say are pressing vacancies.

With time running down on the 106th session, getting any nonspending-related bill onto the end-of-year calendar is daunting. Moreover, the foreign-worker measure, known as the H-1B visa issue, is fraught with tough choices for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Some analysts see it as a true test of high-tech companies' clout on the Hill.

For Democrats, the key issue is how to address the concerns of Hispanic groups who see a double standard in extending visas to high-tech workers while denying them to illegal immigrants already living and working in the United States, in agricultural and other jobs. In May, the White House proposed linking the two issues, and the Hispanic Caucus wants to hold President Clinton and the Democratic leadership to that commitment.

"The person that picks our lettuce and our tomatoes, that cleans our bathrooms, that takes care of our children - their work deserves the same respect and dignity as the high-tech worker," says Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, chairman of the Hispanic Caucus task force on immigration and naturalization.

At the same time, Republicans face strong opposition within their own ranks to increasing the level of immigration. Some GOP lawmakers are calling for guarantees that American workers will not be pushed out of their jobs by lower-wage foreign professionals. And most Republicans balk at the idea of linking the measure with other immigration issues.

"The White House says there shall be no high-skill-worker visas without amnesty for individuals here illegally. The demand is ludicrous. The White House has overreached," says Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims.

A House Judiciary bill, which Mr. Smith authored, has been awaiting House action. This version removes the cap on H-1B visas for three years - provided that companies hire foreign workers with college degrees and pay them more than $40,000 a year, to ensure companies do not replace American workers.

Business groups favor an alternative bill, cosponsored by California Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D) and David Dreier (R), that raises the number of visas without conditions on hiring. Without congressional action, the number of H-1B visas will drop to 107,000 in 2001 and 65,000 in 2002.

The action has now shifted to the Senate. "If the Senate can pull a clean H-1B vote through it will facilitate our efforts," says House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas.

Members of the Hispanic Caucus who met with the president this week say that Mr. Clinton assured them he is still prepared to veto a bill that does not address their concerns. But they add that he also urged them to consider alternative vehicles.

Meanwhile, business groups are stepping up their blitz on key legislators. They want a clean bill with no constraints and no "unrelated" amendments.

High-tech clout

On Tuesday, the Information Technology Industry Council sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, warning that even procedural votes on this issue will be scored in this year's "high-tech voting guide." And industry lobbyists are warning Senate Democrats not to add on amendments that threaten passage of the bill.

Computer companies are becoming big players in Campaign 2000. "They're the fastest-growing industry in terms of campaign contributions," says Larry Makinson, director of the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. The computer industry has already contributed $22.1 million to this campaign cycle, up from $9.5 million in 1998.

But the high-tech community is winning a key element in this battle: Their contention that there is a critical labor shortage that can only be resolved by bringing in skilled outsiders is now a given in the debate.

"We're predicting a vacancy rate of 850,000 [jobs] in the next year," says Jeffrey Lande, vice president for the Information Technology Association of America, based in Arlington, Va. "If ... there is not the staff located domestically to fill the gap, companies will fill it by bringing workers in or going offshore. The only other alternative is to cease product development, production, and marketing."

Is there a labor gap?

However, experts say that the evidence to support this claim is mixed.

"There is some compelling evidence that these companies are not short of rsums. What they may be short of are younger workers willing to work for less money," says James Lindsay, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

A recent Commerce Department study found that the data on labor shortages in the industry didn't support a conclusion either way. "Overall, there just haven't been the wage increases in the information-technology field that would be indicative of a major labor-supply problem," says Carol Ann Meares, an author of the 1999 report.

A two-year study by the National Academy of Sciences commissioned by Congress on this issue is expected to be released Oct. 12, too late to shape the debate.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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