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Job funds come closer to high-tech home

High-tech firms may need their local communities to fund job training if the Senate approves legislation to dismantle the nation's workforce training system.

    High-tech and Internet companies may need to rely on their local communities, not the federal government, to fund job training for their employee-hungry industries if the Senate approves legislation aimed at dismantling the nation's workforce training system.

    The Employment, Training, and Literacy Enhancement Act would consolidate federal workforce programs, totalling an estimated $20 billion in funds, to create three block grants that municipalities or states could apply for to set up their own vocational programs. If adopted, the bill is expected to allocate up to $8 billion in grants.

    The growing need for high-tech workers is, in part, driving the bill. Case in point: a national Information Technology Association of America survey of large and midsized U.S. companies released earlier this year found there were 190,000 vacant information technology jobs.

    The legislation also seeks to let communities customize job training based on local companies' needs. "Somebody sitting inside the Beltway doesn't understand what a displaced aerospace worker in California is going through to reenter the workforce, for example, or [doesn't understand] how to retrain former farmers in Montana," said Armando Azarloza, the spokesman for Rep. Buck McKeon (R-California), who introduced the bill.

    "This training needs to be done by people at the local level who understand the needs of their community," he added.

    The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and local chapters of the PTA have pledged their support for the bill, which was passed by the House in May. But today, the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources said that it probably won't take up the bill until January, when the new session begins.

    The Senate committee added it has been busy working on the high-profile tobacco settlement and streamlining the Food and Drug Administration's procedures.

    Some technology trade groups hope the job training bill passes, but they caution that standards must be adopted for local training centers so that workers can use their skills anywhere, should their new career require relocation.

    "In the software industry, we need some level of consistency regarding the criteria that training services use so that skills are transferable from state to state," said David Byer, the Software Publishers Association's director of government affairs.

    Although the SPA supports the bill, Byer underscored industries' needs for nationally certified workers and warned of that a lack of federal guidelines could potentially lead to ineffective local training programs.

    "This idea could bump up against the proposed local training sites' priorities, as well as jurisdictional issues as to who sets those priorities," he said. "But there need to be some national benchmarks so that displaced workers will have solid training standards across the board; this is what industries need in the 1990s."