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Tech Industry

California takes on labor shortage

Technology executives meet with California legislators to address the vacancies plaguing high-tech businesses across the state.

Warning: If the high-tech industry cannot fill job vacancies, California eventually will lose its competitive edge.

That is the theme that prompted technology executives to meet with California legislators today.

California is facing a very serious skilled workforce shortage, said Bill Bold, a member of the American Electronics Association and director of government affairs at Qualcomm. He was among several attendees representing the technology industry at today's meeting.

"We have a very serious skills deficit and we need to work with the legislature," said Bold. "We have identified some components of the solution, but this is a multiyear effort."

Bold acknowledged that the components to which he referred would not produce results in the near term, but, he asserted, "These are permanent solutions."

Among the issues on today's agenda were: Defining the labor shortage problem, identifying the extent of the problem, and proposing solutions to address the problem. Public comment followed.

Proposals included efforts to improve teachers' credentials, to extend the Digital High School initiative to elementary and middle schools to improve the information architecture in California schools, and to change state graduation requirements to include algebra and geometry courses.

The AMA also expressed support for California Gov. Pete Wilson's $6 million fund created to boost the University of California's operating budget for engineering and science enrollment across UC campuses.

"These are solutions that get us toward a permanent fix," Bold said, pointing out that the digital elementary school and digital middle school programs work toward the type of fundamental change that could make a difference in the long term.

Earlier this week, the General Accounting Office released a report disputing a Commerce Department study which concluded that America is facing a drastic shortage of programmers and other highly skilled professionals.

The Commerce study has been touted by high-tech employers as they call for fewer immigration restrictions on foreign high-tech workers, and the general feeling at today's meeting was that the GAO report should have no bearing on any of the long-term "permanent" solutions for which the AMA is striving.

Among the high-tech executives participating in today's meeting were Bill Jasper, president of Dolby Laboratory; Michael Cornelius, of Western Digital; and Bob Ulrichkson, from Logical Services.

Educational institutions, as well as high-tech companies themselves, increasingly are trying to help close the labor gap with training programs tailored specifically to the information technology industry. Many technology companies have contributed to the educational process by building partnerships with schools, contributing funds, and providing mentors to students.

For example, Intel's (INTC) educational efforts primarily have focused on regions with Intel sites. In 1997 the semiconductor maker donated nearly $16 million in cash, equipment, and scholarships to educational institutions in California's Santa Clara Valley.

National Semiconductor (NSM) has supported educational programs as well, by providing classroom volunteers and mentors to at-risk students, and by awarding cash grants and donations to schools and organizations working to improve K-12 education in the company's local communities.

Through the Community Development Grants Program, Sun Microsystems (SUNW) has awarded grants since 1989 to programs that serve students in grades 7 through 12. The grants are aimed at increasing college entrance rates, particularly among educationally and economically disenfranchised student populations.

At the other end of the spectrum, the skills of many high-tech employees currently in the IT workforce simply no longer match the economy's needs, Hal Varian, dean of the school of information management and systems at University of California at Berkeley, said in an earlier interview. As a result, many older adults will be in need of training, or retraining, adding to the shortage of qualified employees.

UC Berkeley introduced the School of Information Management and Systems, which accepted its first class of students last fall, to address such changing needs. It has worked in tandem with employers at high-tech companies to help train students in the skills that are most in demand.