The Feds' Role: Take Charge or Butt Out?

Just what role - if any - should government play in providing relief to the information technology labor shortage with work visa programs, training, education tax credits and the like?

"Government shouldn't hinder progress in any way," says Mark Dundore, director of applications development at Princess Cruises Inc. in Valencia, Calif. Dundore acknowledges that "the need for IT talent is exploding, and the availability is pretty dismal."

Dundore says that at their core, incentives such as H-1B visas, which are used to bring in talent from other countries, are a positive move, and "many IT workers would likely agree. They're buried. Companies are doing more with less. There is enough work for everybody," he says.

But Dundore adds that even with the best of intentions, government efforts to help often backfire. "Government can get bogged down in red tape and can find itself swayed by big business," he says. "The IT situation will resolve itself as it goes through its cycles. There are 9-year-olds out there today flying through Windows."

Norman Matloff, professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis, says he's strongly opposed to government training programs, "because they don't work, and they are not necessary." Rather, he says, he encourages employers to hire generic programmers, not programmers with specific software skills, who can learn new programming on the job, without a formal training program.

"Any competent programmer can become productive in a new programming language in a couple of weeks. If a given programmer cannot do that, then he is not good enough to hire in the first place," Matloff says.

Not all IT managers see a need to increase the number of H-1B workers. Steve Wyatt, director of corporate services at the IT group at Sunoco Products Co. in Hartsville, S.C., says contractors can usually fill job needs while a company retrains existing employees.

Some U.S. workers say government incentives such as the H-1B visa program tend to fuel discrimination.

"I think H-1B numbers should definitely not be increased and preferably should be decreased," says Luciana Messina, founder of Software to Spec Inc., a maker of real-time embedded systems in Palo Alto, Calif. Before starting the company, Messina quit her full-time software-engineering job at an IT company in protest when she saw well-qualified computer professionals over the age of 40 unable to find work.

"H-1B is serving as a crutch so employers don't have to address the real problem, which is that people need to constantly be retrained, regardless of where they come from," Messina says. "I believe that engineers coming in on H-1B visas are facing the same rate of change that American workers are with every passing minute."

Messina says she would prefer to have companies - not government - foot the bill for retraining. "But sometimes government has to lead. I'm in favor of government incentives such as tax credits to help companies plan long-term with retraining programs that place more emphasis on problem-solving and interdisciplinary skills."

Gloria Montano, director of the virtual development center at the Institute for Women and Technology in Palo Alto, Calif., acknowledges the need for technically qualified people but says that businesses need to be held accountable. "Perhaps for each H-1B a company hires, they might have to reinvest some amount in their own [training] resources," she says.

According to Grant Mydland, manager of government relations at industry association CompTIA, the role of government should be to "provide a snapshot of where we are and where do we need to be in five years, then help us form local partnerships to get there. I see local IT companies working with community colleges to get individuals trained in right skills," he says.

Mydland is also director of the Technology Workforce Coalition (TWC), an industry alliance pushing for IT training tax credits, temporary H-1B visas, curriculum changes in schools and teacher training incentives. The TWC scored a coup in April, when the state of Arizona signed the Technology Training Tax Credit into law. The law provides companies 100% tax credits of up to $1,500 per year per person toward the costs of IT training.

"We're hoping for similar bills in 10 states next year," says Mydland.

Wexler is a freelance writer in Campbell, Calif.

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