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Labor group: Techies less optimistic

Survey of U.S. tech pros finds concerns include job exporting and rising health care costs.

At Labor Day barbecues this weekend, U.S. tech professionals may be mopey as they munch their burgers.

That's the upshot of a survey released Thursday by a labor organization, which found that tech workers in America are feeling less hopeful about the future of their profession than they were two years ago.

According to the study from the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, 40 percent of tech professionals polled in April said demand in the United States will increase for information technology workers. That compares with 53 percent predicting an increase in 2003. The Web-based survey, which involved interviews with 369 respondents this year and 410 two years ago, also found that 52 percent of IT workers say their pay has decreased or stayed the same in the last year.

The national economic recovery under way since late 2001 has failed to change conditions for America's tech workers, according to the study sponsor, also known as WashTech.

"The industry's relentless downsizing, health care cost shifting, job exporting and visa importing strategies are causing tech workers to be less optimistic about their futures in one of America's most important industries," Marcus Courtney, president of WashTech, said in a statement.

The survey indicates sending tech tasks to lower-wage nations like India continues to be a significant issue for tech pros, but a less pressing one. This year, 44 percent of respondents said offshoring has affected wages and benefits, down from 51 percent in 2003.

WashTech's study adds to conflicting signals about the job market for tech workers, and the prospects for technology careers in the United States. On the one hand, the U.S. economy in July added thousands of jobs in both the hardware and services sectors of the technology arena, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. And a study released earlier this year indicated that the U.S. tech industry may have turned a corner last year when it comes to employment woes.

But the pace of tech-sector downsizing is ahead of the rate a year ago. And the average number of unemployed workers in nine high-tech categories fell by 64,000 last year but remained close to 150,000, according to the U.S. Labor Department. What's more, a study released Wednesday by staffing firm Hudson found that technology workers' confidence in the job market fell sharply in August, thanks partly to job-loss fears.

Last fall, an analyst at research firm Gartner predicted a shortage of technology professionals in the United States in the near future, thanks to factors such as declining student interest in the tech field. But a study in 2004 from research organization Rand did not find evidence that shortages of scientific, technical, engineering and mathematics personnel in the U.S. work force were on the horizon. And earlier this year, Gartner predicted that by 2010, the number of IT staff in the profession will shrink by 15 percent.

Some argue that global free trade in software and tech services will generate greater demand for workers with IT skills and proficiency in the U.S.

But not everyone agrees with that predication. Last year, a report on offshore outsourcing of software and IT services indicated the practice would improve the U.S. economy overall but . That study was sponsored by the Information Technology Association of America trade group.

WashTech's study found that one in five tech workers knows someone who has had to train a foreign worker and then lost the job to the person he or she trained. One in 20 have had to train a foreign worker, and then lost--or suspect they lost--the job to the person he or she trained, according to the report.

In a press conference Thursday, Courtney said the controversial H-1B visa program, which allows foreign programmers and other skilled professionals to work in the United States for up to six years, is a key source of U.S. techie woes. "We should actually mandate that companies should have to look for qualified U.S. (talent) before they look overseas," he said.

Currently, such a requirement applies to a subset of employers.

Other findings from the study:

• More than half (56 percent) of tech workers regularly work more than 40 hours a week, with a significant portion (37 percent) regularly working 50 or more hours a week.

• A majority (61 percent) of workers are paying an increasing percentage of their health care premiums, while virtually all workers with coverage have seen the extent of their coverage decline (47 percent) or stay the same (42 percent).

• High-tech temporary workers generally make less and carry a much higher proportion of health care costs than direct employees. While one in five direct employees has a household income below $50,000 per year, twice as many "Agency/Contract" employees have household incomes below $50,000 per year.