April 3, 1998
These days it is not the students who are competing for jobs in the information technology field, but instead, the technology companies who are competing for the students. Spencer Michels has the story.
SPENCER MICHELS: When these computer science students at the University of California at Berkeley graduate, they will have their pick of high-paying jobs.
COMPANY RECRUITER: If I were to find a position outside the California area, could you relocate for that, or do you need to stay here?
STUDENT: I actually don't think I would be willing to.
COMPANY REPRESENTATIVE: I'm sorry?
STUDENT: I wouldn't be willing to.
SPENCER MICHELS: At this job fair it is the recruiters for information technology, or IT companies, as the computer-related firms are called, who are competing for the student talent. Jos Barnett is a recruiter for SPL Worldwide Consultants.
JOS BARNETT, Recruiter: Definitely there is a shortage of skills because we're all looking for people that are ideal for our positions. There are six or seven different IT companies here today. We're all after the same good guys.
SPENCER MICHELS: For these youngsters in computer programming and engineering starting salaries range up to $50,000 a year--not bad for a 21-year-old. According to the industry, the problem is there aren't enough of them to fill all the slots in the booming information technology field. The U.S. Commerce Department says firms in California's Silicon Valley and elsewhere will need 1.3 million new high-level workers in the next 10 years and that computer science departments at American universities are producing only 1/4 of that number. A new General Accounting Office report alleges the study was flawed because it looked only at computer science students, ignoring those in math and engineering, who often enter the high-tech field as well. Nevertheless, the industry continues to claim it is having a hard time filling the open slots. At Cypress Semiconductor in San Jose, CEO T. J. Rodgers says his firm cannot hire enough engineers to grow at its full potential.
SPENCER MICHELS: Why do you need foreign workers? Why can't you hire Americans to do this?
T. J. RODGERS, CEO, Cypress Semiconductor: We hire all the Americans we can get, but if you look at the needs of the high-tech industry versus what's coming out of the college, we're off by more than a factor of two, so we hire every American we can get. The unemployment rate of engineers is .4 of 1 percent, and we're still short 75 engineers right now.
SPENCER MICHELS: Rodgers and other high-tech executives have asked Congress to allow more foreign workers into the U.S. They worked with Republican Senator Spencer Abraham on an immigration bill.
SEN. SPENCER ABRAHAM, (R) Michigan: We're trying to move legislation that would allow on a temporary basis a larger number of skilled foreign engineers and specialists to come into this country to fill the gaps for the short-term that we have in terms of these jobs. In the long-term we obviously have to improve our education system to produce more native-grown talent. But we can't do that overnight, and if we fail to expand the number of temporary workers coming to this country, I think it will hurt the economy very seriously.
SEN. SPENCER ABRAHAM: (speaking at hearing) There is a significant debate going on as to the access to skilled labor in the industries which you all represent.
SPENCER MICHELS: Abraham's bill, which runs counter to the recent tide of bills limiting immigration, came up for discussion recently at a Senate hearing. The proposed law would increase by 25,000 the number of six-year visas for highly skilled workers. Currently the ceiling is $65,000 a year, with many of the high-tech workers coming from Asian countries. High-tech executives say the quota will be reached long before the end of this fiscal year.
BILL GATES, CEO, Microsoft: Microsoft is in strong agreement that raising these caps to allow very skilled legal immigrants to come in would be a good thing for the technology industry and for the country.
JIM BARKSDALE, CEO, Netscape: Senator, we very much, as we told you, would like to see the limits raised. We employ an awful lot of legal immigrants, who are very bright people and make a great contribution, and more than earn their keep and would like to see their limit raised.
MICHAEL DELL, CEO, Dell Computers: We're disarming the economy of the United States of America if we don't allow these folks to come and stay in this country.
SPENCER MICHELS: T. J. Rodgers claims foreign workers will increase American employment.
T. J. RODGERS: I promise that every time I get one of those engineers I will create five more jobs right here in America for Americans to build and sell those products.
SPENCER MICHELS: Opposition among congressional Democrats to increased importation of high-tech workers has recently softened, and a compromise seems likely, but organized labor continues to lobby against Abraham's bill. Labor leaders say there are plenty of Americans who could be trained or retrained to fill the vacant jobs. Tom Rankin is president of California AFL-CIO.
TOM RANKIN, President, California AFL-CIO: We're not convinced there is a shortage of high-tech workers. There are a lot of instances of older workers not being able to get jobs, workers who have been laid off in the industry, and younger workers who somehow don't meet the perceived needs of the industry, which are basically, I think, they want someone who's in to the latest programming, the hot technology, and they don't want to spend money training people to meet their requirements.
SPENCER MICHELS: Professor Norman Matloff, who teaches computer science at the University of California at Davis, calls the high-tech labor shortage a myth.
PROFESSOR NORMAN MATLOFF, Computer Science Professor: We don't have a shortage. Look, for example, at the hiring rates. The hiring rates are about 2 percent, meaning they only hire about 2 percent of their applicants for software positions. There's no way to reconcile the claims of a labor shortage with, you know, minuscule hiring, like 2 percent. You know, if they were that desperate, they just couldn't be so picky.
SPENCER MICHELS: The industry says it needs to be picky because its work is so specialized. And that may be a problem for out-of-work computer programmers and engineers. About 200 men and women gather every week in Silicon Valley to listen to tips on getting hired and to swap experiences. Although the overall unemployment rate here is below 4 percent, these former or would-be high-tech workers are not finding job hunting easy.
FIRST MAN: I'm not sure what you want to do.
SECOND MAN: Well, I'm not sure either.
SPENCER MICHELS: They use the services of a federal, state, and city-funded employment center called NOVA to search for jobs on the Internet, to find retraining classes at nearby colleges, and to hone their skills at resume writing and interviewing techniques.
WOMAN: Could you tell me a time that would be good for me to come and talk with you?
SPENCER MICHELS: We gathered several of them to talk about the job market.
LARRY HICKEY, Physics and MBA Graduate: I've responded to about a hundred ads in the six months or so I've been out of work. I've had 12 interviews and only a couple of second interviews. So I'm not really sure why I get screened out. I've got good credentials. I've still got a good ten or fifteen years of work ahead of me. And yet I'm not getting any offers.
BOB GAMMELL, Sales and Marketing: Your resume, for example, no one wants to see anything on your resume that's beyond 10 years' experience. Right away, that takes out the gray hairs.
SUSAN HEIST, Chemist, Tech Writer: I don't think I really buy completely into the age thing. I think the biggest thing is retraining and keeping current. I think that's really what people have to go for. And my past experience, the company retrained you. Now, it seems that you have to take responsibility to get yourself retrained.
BOB GAMMELL: The industry has changed so fast that you have to change with it, which means re-education. Re-education to that field to upgrade my skills will take me approximately one year. And that's what I've decided to do.
SUSAN HEIST: I'm wondering in my mind am I going fast enough that I'm going to be able to get that job when I finish my training.
LARRY HICKEY: You know, another factor is we may have to re-think our salary expectations. If we're competing with these people from third world countries, they're going to have a lot less salary expectation than we do.
SPENCER MICHELS: There is debate and not much research on whether foreign workers are paid less. Federal law prohibits that. And there is hot debate on whether experienced American workers, like these, can be retrained to take the open jobs industry wants to give to foreigners. Professor Randy Katz is chair of the Computer Science & Electrical Engineering Department at Berkeley.
PROFESSOR RANDY KATZ, UC Berkeley: This is a field which is moving very rapidly and something that a 50-year-old computer programmer may have learned 30 years ago is not as current as a 22-year-old coming out of our programs today.
SPENCER MICHELS: For example, Katz says that the new programming language called Java, which allows programs to run on any computer, may be easy for his students to learn but difficult for older workers.
PROFESSOR RANDY KATZ: The analogy that I like to use is I always wanted to learn Swedish. And it's harder for me as a forty-two-year-old to learn Swedish today than if I learned it when I was six years old, or if I tried to learn it when I was eighteen. And the same thing is true about these modern ways of programming computers.
NORMAN MATLOFF: Are you saying that the people who are trained earlier, their brains are fried, and now they can't do it? It's just absurd. It's like saying that somebody who's been a Chevrolet auto mechanic all his or her life suddenly can't learn to work on Fords. And that's just not true.
SPENCER MICHELS: Some companies, like Cypress, don't believe it's their responsibility to retrain American workers for new technology, though they do some training. Here, the work force comes from dozens of countries. These are highly specialized engineers with Ph.D.'s and M.A.'s whose salaries range up to more than $100,000 a year. The development section is headed by Jose Arreola, a Ph.D. from Mexico.
JOSE ARREOLA, Director, Cypress Development: The wafers that I make are very complicated to make. They require about a hundred steps involving chemistry, plasma, you know, the most sophisticated thing that you can imagine. And not everybody has that kind of skills.
SPENCER MICHELS: Why not train people in those skills?
JOSE ARREOLA: Because I'm not in the training business. That's what universities are for. I'm in the making silicon business, which is what I do. So, you know, I don't want to spend my time training people. I want to find them, you know, and put them to work and making, you know, money for us.
SPENCER MICHELS: Given the industry's preference for young, freshly trained college graduates, the burden for educating them falls to American universities, where the number of computer science students declined from 1983 to 1997. But now, according to Professor Katz, it's climbing extremely fast.
PROFESSOR RANDY KATZ: It's a boom and bust sort of industry. It follows cycles, as anything else in our economy, and right now the computer industry is in a big boom.
SPENCER MICHELS: Do you think the boom is going to continue or not?
PROFESSOR RANDY KATZ: I think that this dramatic boom will almost certainly dissipate at some point, and we'll go back to sort of normal growth. But, in the meantime, we are planning to hire aggressively new computer science faculty to meet the current demand.
SPENCER MICHELS: Nevertheless, the universities aren't attracting enough engineering students, say industry executives like T. J. Rodgers.
T. J. RODGERS: If you ask about our colleges and universities, who's the best in the world, you give me an American engineer any day over any engineer I can find anywhere else and I've already hired all of them I can hire. We don't--we don't create enough American engineers, so one thing is I would like to see a lot more engineering students come out.
SPENCER MICHELS: Rodgers admits that it is a long process, involving reform of the American school system. So for now, he says, his firm and thousands of others will search for trained high-tech workers by posting jobs on the Internet, by recruiting vigorously at top schools, and by lobbying Congress to allow more foreigners to work in the information technology industry.