Despite US recession, high-tech hunts workers

There is an odd glitch in the American economy. An estimated 17,000 to 25, 000 jobs in the ''high technology'' industry continue to go begging, while the country as a whole slips into recession and unemployment pushes past 8 percent.

''The high-tech industry is people poor,'' says Robert P. Henderson, chairman and chief executive officer of Itek Corporation. ''There are not enough technically trained people available to meet the requirements of industry.''

The reason is simple. Companies producing such things as computers, telecommunications equipment, and semiconductors have grown 300 percent in 10 years. Industry sales came close to $200 billion in 1980, and the export of computers alone can be expected to produce a $6 billion trade surplus this year. The high-tech industry may soon replace the auto industry as the backbone of the US economy, some analysts predict.

But such rapid growth has led to a severe shortage of skilled workers, such as computer programmers and technicians, electrical and mechanical engineers, systems test analysts, and software instructors.

And there are forecasts of worse tidings to come. The expansion of the high-tech industry in the 1970s came at a time of declining defense spending. If the demands of even a modest armaments program are worked into employment estimates, the shortfall could surpass the 25,000 jobs openings now projected to go unfilled each year through 1985.

At the same time, some estimates indicate there will be a smaller college-age population. This will mean fewer students earning engineering degrees and entering the high-tech industry.

In addition, high-tech firms are expected to expand into markets that are just now emerging. The marriage of computers and communications and the continuing development of robotics will add their own pressures to the industry.

The high-tech labor shortage and its effect on America's position in the world market were discussed recently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The subject was addressed at a field hearing sponsored by the US House Subcommittee on Science, Research, and Technology.

High-tech executives testifying before the subcommittee expressed concerned that the manpower shortage could eventually stunt the growth of the industry. This in turn would check the lead the United States now holds in the high-tech field.

Currently, Japan, with half the population of the US, graduates 5,000 more electronics engineers. Russsia graduates three times as many engineers as the US, a figure matched on a per capita basis by a number of Soviet-bloc nations.

But the threat implied in such statistics is more than economic. The shortfall of qualified workers may ultimately affect national security. The fear is that worker shortages would severely limit the ability of high-tech industries to handle defense contracts.

Colleges and universities have been looked to for a solution to the manpower problem. Yet engineering schools are already filled to capacity. The full-time engineering undergraduate enrollment in the nation's 287 engineering schools increased 7.2 percent in 1980 compared with 1979.

Yet ''to meet the demand, education would have to triple its output. A result that is simply not possible,'' says Roger Wellington, chairman and chief executive officer of Augat Inc., a manufacturer of components for the electronics industry.

Engineering schools cannot increase their capacity because of outmoded equipment and facilities, and their own manpower shortages. And while undergraduate degrees in high-tech fields have increased, graduate degrees have decreased. So many well-paying jobs are available to those with an undergraduate degree that many have forgone higher degrees.

The result is a teacher shortage extending down to the high school level. Of the nation's 20,000 engineering faculty jobs, 2,000 to 2,500 are unfilled. In more specific fields, such as computer engineering, estimates of the shortage range up to 50 percent.

One of the few solutions offered has come from Kenneth Ryder, president of Boston's Northeastern University, one of the nation's leading suppliers of engineering graduates. He advocates greater cooperation between government, industry, and education leaders in programs designed to address the manpower deficiency.

Mr. Ryder spearheaded the formation of a Massachusetts commission that funded a program at Northeastern, called Women in Engineering. The program is designed to retrain in high-tech careers women who have a strong background in mathematics or the sciences. Women currently make up only 9 percent of the high-tech work force, though they score higher than their male counterparts on math-related aptitude tests through early grade school.

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