- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2000

The nation's high-tech chief executives yesterday urged Congress to help keep their industry surging by addressing work force shortages and boosting funds for research.
Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates said increasing the number of temporary visas available for skilled foreign high-tech workers is the best remedy for an industry in need of "human capital."
"If there's anything that can help move the technology industry, it's this visa issue," Mr. Gates told the Joint Economic Committee.
U.S. high-tech employment jumped 32 percent from 1993 to 1999, from 3.8 million to 5 million, according to the District of Columbia-based industry group American Electronics Association. But executives from Fortune 500 companies to tech start-ups are looking for ways to get more workers for the rapidly growing industry.
Current law allows U.S. companies to temporarily hire 115,000 foreign workers this year. That will fall to 107,500 in 2001 and to 65,000 in 2002, unless Congress changes the law.
A bill by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat, and Rep. David Dreier, California Republican, proposes increasing the limit to 200,000 each year from 2001 to 2003.
A rival bill sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, would suspend for three years an annual limit on temporary workers, with some strings attached: the H-1B workers have to earn at least $40,000 and have college degrees.
Some lawmakers like Mr. Smith are concerned that allowing more guest workers into the country would depress U.S. wages. So, the House Judiciary Committee approved the Smith bill last month after adding language requiring companies to show the median wages for their U.S. workers rose in the past year.
The 115,000 cap for this year was reached before the end of the first quarter, the third year in a row it was met before the fiscal year ended.
Tech companies say Congress should raise the cap because businesses are unable to find enough workers to keep up with the demands of the growing industry. The Virginia-based Information Technology Association of America has said that of the 1.6 million technology positions U.S. companies hope to fill this year, they won't find workers for 843,000 of those jobs.
"The supply is just not there," Mr. Gates said.
One reason is that too few young people are studying in tech-related fields including math, science, engineering and computer science, said Andrew Grove, chairman of computer chip maker Intel Corp.
High-tech degrees awarded by universities declined from 1988 to 1998, and degrees in electrical engineering declined from 25,000 in 1988 to 14,000 in 1998, Mr. Grove said.
At the same time, the total number of degrees given from 1988 to 1998 increased from 1.4 million to 1.6 million, he said.
An increase in the number of visas for high-tech workers will provide a short-term solution to the work force shortage, Mr. Grove said, but solving the problem for years to come will require boosting young people's interest in math and science.
"We're grateful for the short-term relief of the H-1B visa program, but it's like bailing water out of a boat with a cup," he said.
Mr. Gates said another way to solve the problem is by improving teacher training so instructors can better use technology in classrooms.
Just 20 percent of educators feel comfortable using technology in class, he said.
Mr. Grove also lobbied for an increase in federal funding for high-tech research and development.
From 1990 to 1999, federal funding for research declined from $75 billion to $62 billion, he said, but the high-tech industry grew 10 percent to 30 percent per year during the same period.
The Joint Economic Committee of 20 members of the House and Senate indicated its support for legislation that helps the high-tech industry thrive and removes barriers.
But Sen. Connie Mack, Florida Republican and chairman of the group, said it's important to wade through the reams of tech legislation carefully and promote only those bills that support the entrepreneurial spirit and "turns innovation into jobs and [gross domestic product]."
Internet-related businesses generated more than $507 billion in revenue last year, surpassing for the first time traditional industries such as airlines, according to a University of Texas at Austin study. That represented about 6 percent of the nation's gross domestic product the broadest measure of economic health.
The Joint Economic Committee's high-tech summit concludes today.

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