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Tech firms may troll grad schools for talent

Congress is considering legislation to make it easier for the industry to tap foreign postgraduate students when they can't find homegrown talent.

Responding to U.S. high-tech firms' complaints that they are starved for brainpower, Congress is considering legislation to make it easier for the industry to tap foreign postgraduate students when they can't find homegrown talent.

The government and industry have documented a scarcity of technology experts that will continue to grow. The high-tech sector will need up to 1.3 million new highly skilled employees by 2006, the Commerce Department reported in July. In addition, the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) estimates that currently there are 346,000 unfilled high-tech jobs nationwide.

Aside from seeking job candidates from other nations, the workforce shortage has led many companies to lure qualified U.S. students away from universities and into high-paying jobs, frequently before they complete their undergraduate degrees. But this tactic only contributes to the depleting pool of people with advanced degrees, who are also in demand by the high-tech industry for research and development projects, for example.

The dilemma has prompted federal lawmakers to push a new visa program that would make it easier for foreign students to segue into U.S.-based high-tech jobs right after graduation.

Following Rep. Zoe Lofgren's (D-California) lead in the House, Sens. Charles Schumer (D-New York) and Chuck Robb (D-Virginia) this week introduced the Helping Improve Technology Education and Competitiveness (HITEC) Act to create a new "Tech," or "T," visa for foreign students.

"I have heard from a dozen top-notch high-tech firms who are begging Congress to allow them to hire qualified foreign applicants because they cannot find enough Americans who are qualified to take the job," Schumer said in a statement. "They are not trying to cut costs with cheap foreign workers, they are trying to attract the best brainpower in the world for demanding high-paid jobs."

Those who have obtained master's or doctorate degrees in mathematics, science, engineering, or computer science, and who have a job offer on the table from a U.S. firm paying at least $60,000, would qualify for the so-called T visa. The visa would be good for up to five years after graduation.

The HITEC bill also aims to improve science and math education in the K-12 system by devoting $970 of the $1,000 T visa application fee to fund grants for public-private partnerships between schools and businesses.

Backers of the T visa say it would relieve pressure on the pool of so-called H1-B visas, which companies can use to recruit high-skilled foreign workers.

Visas in demand
Despite constant cap increases by Congress--there are 115,000 H1-Bs available per year--the supply always runs out before the demand is filled. Today the fiscal 2000 allotment of H1-Bs, which cost $500 a piece, became available from the Labor Department. Congressional staffers and industry trade groups say the new allotment could disappear as soon as January.

"The dramatic shortage of workers is going to slow down the e-economy," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, which represents more than 11,000 companies.

"We need to take a multifaceted approach to fix this problem, and immigration is part of that," he added. "Clearly we support anything that removes some of the excess bureaucratic baggage, wasted time, and dollars to find workers."

The bill's authors estimate that 16,000 to 17,000 foreign graduates could take advantage of the visa. But that won't go far in filling the worker shortage.

"Right now we have 2,000 job openings," said Rick Miller, a spokesman for Microsoft, whose chairman, Bill Gates, last month donated $1 billion to improve education.

"From what we've heard from Congress about the T visa bill, it strikes at themes we support," he added. "We would like to enjoy the benefits of [foreign university students'] training by our fine universities."

Call to improve education
What's more important than upping visas is improving education, industry trade groups and lawmakers say. That is why they are pushing the education components of the various high-tech visa bills.

"That is definitely a concern that our companies have--how do we get U.S. students engaged at young ages in science and math?" said Connie Correll, spokeswoman for industry trade group the Information Technology Industry Council.

When the H1-B visa cap was raised last year, Congress mandated that part of the application fees be handed over to a National Science Foundation scholarship fund, which was estimated to increase the pot by $75 million per year.

Still, those scholarships haven't been released yet, which is why the industry also is researching how to better train students and to determine which skills are in demand. The ITAA, for one, will release a report next month with results from interviews with 1,000 companies about their high-tech skills needs.

"The money from the H1-B visas has been flowing into the coffers--and from our estimates could be at $65 million, but they are still considering proposals regarding how to spend the money," said the ITAA's Miller. "That has been extremely frustrating and reconfirms that the IT industry needs to keep spending more money to train workers."