The Immigration and Naturalization Service is expected Monday to announce how many H-1B visas have been issued to foreign workers to hold technology jobs in the United States.
Congress passed a three-year extension of the program last fall, raising to 195,000 the number of workers allowed to enter each year. But it did so with the understanding that the information technology sector would work with U.S. students to help produce a technology-savvy work force in the near future while Congress made its own efforts in that direction.
In the last two weeks both the House and the Senate have held hearings to assess how far companies have come. To the relief of private companies, the consensus was that it's too early to judge the success of the various programs being conducted by such companies as AOL Time Warner, Cisco Systems, Cox Communications, Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Motorola, Oracle, Scientific-Atlanta and Sun Microsystems.
But a further consensus at the hearings was that any temporary drop in visa applications that might come from the current economic downturn shouldn't be an excuse for companies to scale back their tech education efforts.
"We'll be besieged with thousands of H-1B visa applications every year if we don't have enough trained workers," said Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Commerce Telecommunications subcommittee.
Congress and industry both active
Both Congress and the IT industry have a lot of work ahead of them if they want more U.S. workers filling tech jobs. At a recent Telecommunications Industry Association briefing on Capitol Hill, Telcordia Technologies Vice President Richard Wolff said more undergraduate students are choosing majors in "parks, recreation, leisure and fitness studies" than electrical engineering.
"If you look at graduate school, it's even worse," Wolff said.
According to Dan Mondor, group vice president of optical Internet for Nortel Networks, "The dot-com boom has distorted people's thinking into assuming they're going to be millionaires by the time they're 25" by dropping out of school a la Bill Gates rather than pursuing traditional degrees.
Some in Congress believe there are plenty of Americans who still would like a vocational education. The top senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah and top Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, have introduced a bill to ease copyright restrictions for educators using distance learning. The bill creates a safe harbor for educators to use copyrighted materials without needing a license and was crafted by the U.S. Copyright Office.
"Any education reforms moved in the Congress this year should include provisions that help deploy high-technology tools, including the Internet, to give our students the very best educational experience we can offer," Hatch said at a hearing March 13.
Leahy pitched the bill as a way to quickly ramp up the U.S. technology work force, in that the typical distance-learning student is an adult already in the work force looking to learn new skills.
The U.S. distance-learning market is projected to grow from just over $2 billion in 2000 to $5.3 billion in 2004, according to research firm Frost & Sullivan. Merrill Lynch projects the overall e-learning business to grow from $9.4 billion last year to $55.3 billion by 2003.
House Commerce Telecommunications subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., also believes the federal government has a role in improving technology education. One way he is seeking to do that is to come to the defense of the Technology Opportunity Program, which provides grants for technology programs in underserved areas and is expected to be severely cut by the Bush administration.
Meanwhile, technology companies have developed a variety of ways to reach students with math and science instruction. WorldGate Communications has launched WISH TV, a free service offered in several communities, where students use a cable set-top box, a TV and a wireless keyboard to gain Internet access and remain connected with their schools. Oracle has targeted high school students with IT labs where they can work and study. Oracle and Microsoft both have discounted certification programs for students not necessarily college-bound.
Teacher training hasn't been left out, and the cable industry has added that to its Cable in the Classroom initiative that brings broadband to every school.
"Our teachers must have the capabilities to use technology effectively and incorporate its usage into the daily rhythms of their classes and lesson plans," said Discovery Communications President Judith McHale, who is also chairwoman of Cable in the Classroom and a member of the Maryland Board of Education.
High-tech companies and the programs they sponsored made it clear they were focused on developing a more effective work force.
AOL Time Warner Chairman Steve Case launched PowerUP in 1999 to work with disadvantaged youth, and its chief executive, Rae Grad, told Upton's subcommittee that the program helps "young people learn how to master the technical skills necessary to succeed in the digital age," including a focus on career opportunities.
While it's too early to reach any final conclusions about the success or failure of these corporate-sponsored programs, the House and Senate agree that tech education will continue to be a subject of close congressional review.