Key Import: Keen Minds

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

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.

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."

More important, labor is fundamentally suspicious of the emerging technology industry and the workplace model it is building, which includes a large number of contract workers, no traditional pension plans, and often a geographically dispersed work force.

"This is an important issue to us long term because as we look at these new industries, they are in many cases virtual companies, with lots of temporary workers. Management wants to move quickly, but is this the future we want?" wonders Mr. Golodner.

The technology industry readily admits the expansion of the visa program is an expedient. "We can't find the educated workers here, and immigration is our quick-fix solution," says Brian Raymond, lobbyist in Washington for the American Electronics Association. "Yes, we want to train more, but that won't bear fruit for some time."

American colleges and universities hope that the pool of computer-science graduates will begin growing, after staying level for the past five years. But the deficit between graduates and industry needs would still be large.

The Clinton administration pledged $28 million in January for a number of initiatives intended to help increase the number of programmers. Meanwhile, other organizations like Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network are moving into public schools to try to help nurture a stronger work force down the road.

Yet as industry and education grow closer, some worry. "It's frightening to have industry have too much of a role in the education system. If they dictate the educational curriculum, we're going to wind up with students trained to meet the short-term interests of industry, instead of how to think and learn," says Amy Dean, executive officer of the AFL-CIO labor council in the Silicon Valley region.

Some observers say the real problem is the industry's resistance to retraining older workers, preferring the lower salaries of people with less experience.

The ITAA has launched a number of efforts to improve worker training, including greater sharing of information among members - a surprising move, given the historic rivalry between companies.

Competition for workers

Indeed, competition is the name of the game in Silicon Valley when it comes to finding skilled software engineers like Krishnan. He works for the San Jose division of Stratus Computer Inc., which is based in Marlboro, Mass. Krishnan regularly gets calls from recruiters trying to lure him away, but it's a two-way street. Stratus offers bounties as much as $4,000 to anyone who can bring it a hirable software engineer.

Stratus human resources manager Laynette Evans says within the pool of serious applicants for skilled engineer positions, the typical ratio of immigrant to local-born is 4 to 1.

The technology industry predicts the 65,000 visa limit will be reached next month, leaving companies unable to fill key jobs through October, the end of the fiscal year, unless they get legislative relief. Clinton has not endorsed a raise in the visa limit, but many analysts predict some form of increase is likely.

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