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News from the National Academies
Date: Oct. 24, 2000
Contacts: Bill Kearney, Media Relations Associate
Kathi McMullin, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

High-Tech Labor Squeeze Defies Single Solution

WASHINGTON -- While skilled foreign workers can help relieve a tight high-tech labor market in the United States, cultivating adequately trained U.S. workers is a critical element as well, says a new congressionally mandated report from a committee of the National Academies' National Research Council.

"As the U.S. economy comes to depend more heavily on information technology, the availability of skilled workers becomes increasingly important to the nation," said committee chair Alan Merten, president of George Mason University, Fairfax, Va. "The labor market for these workers is unquestionably tight, and all sources of talent -- both domestic and foreign -- are needed to address this problem. Employers, employees, educational institutions, and the government all have important roles to play in assuring that the high-tech industry has the labor force necessary to compete in a global economy."

The report focuses primarily on professional occupations in information technology (IT), such as systems analysts, computer scientists, and programmers. It does not look at IT-support workers because the range of the occupations is so broad that it is difficult to define which jobs to include in this category, and because data on many of these employees are not available.

Congress recently responded to concerns about the availability of skilled workers in the high-tech industry by increasing the number of H-1B visas, which allow highly skilled foreigners to work in the United States on a temporary basis. Without H-1B workers, the committee said, there would likely be a slowdown in the rate of growth in the IT sector. The committee also said that the current size of the H-1B workforce relative to the overall number of IT professionals is large enough to keep wages from rising as fast as might be expected in a tight labor market. Further, it found no analytical basis on which to set the "proper" level of H-1B visas, and that decisions to reduce or increase the cap on such visas are fundamentally political. The use of foreign workers will continue to be necessary for the immediate future, and policies governing their employment must consider the benefits as well as the potential negative effects on the domestic workforce. Steps should be taken to ameliorate any adverse effects.

The report calls for changes to the government's policies on foreigners who work in the United States temporarily and permanently. The time it takes to get a green card -- which grants a foreign worker permanent residency in the United States -- should be reduced. In addition, the H-1B visa should be made more "portable" so such workers can easily change jobs. These adjustments would help level the playing field for all IT workers. The government also needs to consider the impact of having increased the number of H-1B visas without streamlining the green-card process or re-evaluating the numerical limits on green-card holders.

In addition, the committee examined claims of rampant age discrimination in the high-tech industry. While it found some difference in the experiences of older (those over the age of 40) and younger workers, the committee could not determine whether such differences were the result of illegal age discrimination, legal conduct by employers that may be perceived as discriminatory, personal choices, or the ramifications of a rapidly changing industry. Nevertheless, the nation cannot afford to squander labor resources of any type, especially when the IT labor market is tight.

Other actions can help to increase the number of IT workers in both the short and long term, and companies -- as well as their employees -- can take steps to meet the demand, the report says. More diversified corporate recruiting practices would help draw greater numbers of IT workers, and should include strategies to increase the number of women and minorities working in the field. Employers also should increase their support for the training of workers. For their part, employees should negotiate more time for professional development and training. The committee recommended more active participation in professional societies, which promote the exchange of ideas and encourage individuals to advance their careers.

Educational institutions, particularly secondary schools, should improve mathematics education so that high school graduates are better prepared to enter IT-related fields. Educators also should be part of the effort to encourage women and minorities to pursue high-tech careers.

To overcome the severe recruitment problems facing the federal government, including imminent retirement by a large number of IT workers, hiring policies need to be more flexible and restrictions on the rehiring of retired federal employees should be eliminated, the committee said. In addition, a mechanism should be established through which the government can pay for an individual's undergraduate and graduate IT education in return for government service.

An increasing number of college students are majoring in computer science, but this growth has been hindered by a dearth of qualified IT instructors. Using adjunct faculty drawn from industry and upgrading the skills of existing faculty should help alleviate the shortage and would enable more non-computer science majors to gain significant exposure to formal education in the field, the committee said.

Similarly, work in biotechnology generally requires a higher degree of education and training. While there is an oversupply of individuals with Ph.D.s in the life sciences, biotechnology employers share comparable difficulties in hiring people with appropriate expertise, particularly in the areas of analytical chemistry, instrumentation, clinical biostatistics, and bioinformatics. This is because universities have not responded to changing skill requirements as the biotechnology industry becomes more manufacturing-oriented and data intensive.

The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and NASA. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of Building a Workforce for the Information Economy for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).


NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications
Center for Education
Policy Division
and
Office of Scientific and Engineering Personnel

Committee on Workforce Needs in Information Technology

Alan Merten (chair)
President
George Mason University
Fairfax, Va.

Burt Barnow (vice chair)
Associate Director for Research and Principal Research Scientist
Institute for Policy Studies
Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore

Eileen Appelbaum
Research Director
Economic Policy Institute
Washington, D.C.

Sarah Kuhn
Associate Professor
Department of Regional Economic and Social Development
University of Massachusetts
Lowell

Joel Moses1
Institute Professor,
Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, and
Professor of Engineering Systems
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge

Patricia Murray
Vice President and Director of Human Resources
Intel Corp.
Santa Clara, Calif.

James Outtz
Industrial/Organizational Psychologist
Outtz and Associates
Washington, D.C.

Roy Radner2
Stern School Professor of Business
New York University
New York City

Cecilia Rouse
Associate Professor of Economics and Public Affairs, and
Research Associate
Industrial Relations Section
Princeton University
Princeton, N.J.

Ira Rubinstein
Associate General Counsel
Microsoft Corp.
Redmond, Wash.

Peter Saflund
Associate Director
NorthWest Center for Emerging Technologies
Bellevue, Wash.

Jan Schultz
Director of Reuse, and
Team Leader, Reuse Group
IDX Corp.
Burlington, Vt.

Eric Tomlinson
Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder
TheScientificWorld Inc.
The Woodlands, Texas

Ernst Volgenau
President and Chief Executive Officer
SRA International Inc.
Fairfax, Va.

Helen Wood
Director
Office of Satellite Data Processing and Distribution
U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Suitland, Md.

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

Herb Lin
Study Director


1 Member, National Academy of Engineering
2 Member, National Academy of Sciences