Foreign Affairs

The Rapid Proliferation of the Internet, the preponderance of fast-growing start-ups and the rush to build e-commerce arms for established businesses are quickly draining the available pool of information technology talent in the U.S. However, predictions differ about the looming impact of the IT skills shortage.

Industry lobbyists predict that if Congress doesn't increase the number of immigrant IT workers allowed into the U.S. under the federal H-1B program, the country will face an economic crisis as early as next year.

IT managers at user companies and other observers in nonvendor firms say they agree that the H-1B visa program has its place as one means of attracting the best and brightest IT talent to America. But, they say, they also see other short-term options for filling specific expertise gaps. They also advocate on-the-job training for the long haul.

The Industry Perspective

Lobbyist associations for computer companies predict dire consequences if the H-1B visa cap - currently set at 115,000 workers per year - isn't extended soon, at least on a temporary basis. Industry lobbyists warn that U.S. firms will likely begin moving IT projects to other nations, where the required talent is available.

"This could pose a threat to the livelihood of the American IT worker and the U.S.'s leadership position in IT," says Jeff Lande, vice president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) in Arlington, Va.

In a study released in April, the ITAA claimed that this year employers will create a demand in the U.S. for about 1.6 million technology-related workers. The ITAA estimates that half of those positions (or one in 12 existing positions overall) will likely go unfilled.

Similarly, the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), a Lombard, Ill.-based association of technology companies, surveyed 878 CIOs and other IT executives last year. The group found that almost 10% of IT jobs are currently unfilled.

"What was once seen as a problem for Silicon Valley, Boston and Austin is now a problem for the entire country," says Grant Mydland, manager of government relations at CompTIA.

Mydland is also director of the Technology Workforce Coalition, an Arlington, Va.-based industry alliance pushing for federal and state tax incentives and other programs to address the shortage. "The skills deficit is no longer just a problem for IT companies," Mydland says. "Because of the Internet, it has spilled over to IT-enabled [user] companies as well."

The User View

Corporate IT managers working at user companies acknowledge that finding affordable talent isn't easy. But they also seem more willing to get creative in finding a solution rather than importing more workers.

"One year ago, I was very apprehensive about my company's ability to attract and retain talented workers in a small South Carolina town," says Steve Wyatt, director of IT corporate services at Sonoco Products Co. in Hartsville, S.C. "But we re-evaluated and upgraded our compensation, bonus and training packages. We found we were then able to attract talent from major metro areas. And I have no job openings at the moment."

Wyatt says that when he needs a new skill set quickly, he turns to consultants, who seem to be readily available. "But you need to build skills in-house so you are not held hostage to this expensive alternative," he notes. "In the short term, though, it is just part of the cost of doing business."

Still, Wyatt says, he isn't opposed to the availability of H-1B visas. In fact, he adds, the cap should be lifted to enable a "natural ebb and flow" of worker demand and availability.

"Workers go where the demands are," Wyatt says. "If we're not paying enough, they probably won't come here."

Wexler is a freelance writer in Campbell, Calif.

Special Report stories:

Have an opinion about government IT policies? Head to our forums. (Note: Anyone can read messages; free registration is required to post. To register on Computerworld's forums, click here).
For the latest news about government actions affecting IT, see our Washington Watch page.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon