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White House wants more U.S. tech workers

Concerned about a potential U.S. workforce shortage, the Clinton administration calls for more investment to train Americans for high-tech jobs.

Concerned about a potential U.S. workforce shortage, the Clinton administration has issued a new report calling for more investment to train Americans in the kind of high technology that has driven much of the nation's economy.

The high-tech sector will need up to 1.3 million new highly skilled employees between 1996 and 2006, according to the Commerce Department's Digital Work Force report. But the estimated pool of qualified job candidates, though difficult to measure, is believed to fall well short of that goal.

The projected worker demand will affect some regions harder than others, such as California, Texas, and Virginia, which are expected to employee the most information technology workers by 2006, the report states.

For the past several years, the high-tech industry has lobbied to raise federal limits on foreign worker H1-B visas to fill some of their most critical positions. But White House officials say the administration instead wants companies, government, and educators to work together to swell the number of skilled workers who are U.S. citizens.

"Instead of looking overseas, businesses should be looking at home for people they can train," Commerce Secretary William Daley said during a speech yesterday in Washington.

"They should tap underrepresented labor pools, especially women, minorities, and the disabled," he added. "Many companies already have active training programs. But more businesses need to be doing it."

The report suggests the following ways to increase U.S. employment in high technology:

• Government and corporations should develop national information campaigns to improve the image of the technical professions, especially for women. The Commerce Department and the nonprofit Women in Film will produce public service TV spots and posters next year to dispel the "negative geek or nerd" stereotype of high-tech workers and to encourage teenagers to pursue careers in science and technology.

• Technology firms should reduce the cost and risk of worker training and "assess IT training needs, develop curricula, train current or prospective employees, and develop ways to help employees get experience in applying the technical skills they acquire through training."

• Companies should partner with universities and community colleges to improve curricula, help maintain faculty skills, and increase the quality of K-12 science and math teaching through stipends, internships, and scholarships.

Despite the White House push for high-tech firms to reach out to U.S. workers, a separate study released today trumps the contributions by skilled immigrants from China, Taiwan, and India.

University of California researcher AnnaLee Saxenian conducted a study for the Public Policy Institute of California, which found that in 1998 Chinese and Indian engineers were in charge of 2,775 Silicon Valley companies, which accounted for $16.8 billion in sales and more than 58,000 jobs.

"Immigrants are contributing to the dynamism of the Silicon Valley economy in unique and important ways," Saxenian told Reuters.

Both studies could fuel the debate over increasing the number of H1-B visas issued to highly skilled immigrants, which this month were exhausted for fiscal 1999, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Last year, Congress passed legislation to raise the H1-B visa cap from 65,000 to 115,000 for 1999 and 2000, but now the industry is pushing for a level of 200,000 per year.

The INS doesn't break down H1-B recipients by industry, but high-tech firms dominate the top-20 list of companies that filed for petitions in 1998. First among them was Mastech, a Pennsylvania services consulting firm, which applied 11 percent of all H1-B visas on behalf of employees, with Oracle, Lucent Technologies, Motorola, Cisco, Intel, and SAI Software Consultants, also leading the pact.

Reuters contributed to this report.