Published July 25, 2005

Region's IT workers in short supply


A lot of people who should know say the Blue Ridge Region doesn't have enough information technology (IT) workers and that if it doesn't doesn't get on the ball, it'll be sorry.

"I believe there is a high-tech worker shortage in the region," says Pat Matthews, CEO of Blacksburg-based Webmail.us, "and I believe this exists because of the going perception that this region doesn't have many high-tech jobs to offer. If there aren't that many opportunities, why would people stay?"

"Finding good, qualified candidates has been a really big challenge," he continues, "and that is with Virginia Tech and Radford University right next door, graduating hundreds of qualified folks every year . . . think if there was a potential "Google" forming in the region . . . how could they possibly grow to 3,000-plus people, much less 300."

Adds Stan Shoun, vice president for workforce development with Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg, for many companies, "it's a constant day-to-day fight" to find highly skilled workers. "The [bigger] high-paying companies aren't suffering because they're taking employees from the small and medium-size companies. There's a bouncing effect."

Kevin Warman is a Lynchburg-based technical recruiter with CRT Inc. The shortages he sees are for job categories such as senior level Web designers, radio frequency engineers, senior application developers and database administrators. He observes that many high-tech jobs in his area have very specific requirements, and consequently, "a lot of these companies must recruit from other regions."

Why can't they find local candidates? Warman cites the low turnover rate of those employed in the area. Another reason is compensation. "A lot of [high-tech workers] are looking for the dollar sign; therefore they're looking to the big cities."

Roger Beeker is manager of existing programs with the Region 2000 Economic Development Partnership. He sees high-skill worker shortages in other areas such as the machine and tool industry, public accounting and the trades, especially in the HVAC, electrician, plumbing and welding categories. Referring to recent significant company closings, he says, "Those laid-off employees are underemployed now. But to meet the demanded jobs, it takes time to retrain."

Shoun is concerned about a projected shortage of radiation safety professionals to serve Lynchburg's cluster of nuclear businesses.

"Right now the worker shortage [of IT professionals] is average," says Jay Foster, president of SoftSolutions in Roanoke. "But the economy is coming back into an upward business cycle. Combine that with the [coming] retirement of aging baby boomers, and we're going to have an acute situation."

Indeed, the Virginia Employment Commission projected that between 1994 and 2005, the numbers of systems analysts will grow by 90 percent and 74 percent for the Roanoke MSA and Lynchburg MSA, respectively. In real numbers, that means that by 2005, Roanoke was projected to have 487 more openings than available analysts. For Lynchburg, the shortage was to be 195 analysts.

Foreign-born

One tactic for addressing the high-tech worker shortage over the years-especially in IT and health care-has been the hiring of foreign-born professionals, through the use of H-1B and L-1B visas.

But, allotment numbers for these visas dropped dramatically after 9/11, from over 150,000 to 65,000. The cap remains low, but demand has not waned; allocations for 2005 were met on the first day of the fiscal year.

Some say there is a danger in reducing employment visas for highly skilled professionals. A 2004 report by the American Immigration Law Foundation (AILF) points out that "over half of doctorate holders in engineering and roughly 45 percent of doctorate holders in mathematics and computer sciences, physical sciences and life sciences [in 2000] were foreign- born."

Statistics bear this out locally. A report by the American Association of Engineering Societies shows that over 50 percent of engineering doctorates awarded by Virginia Tech in 2003 went to foreign nationals.

The AILF report warns: "The U.S. government has implemented restrictive visa policies since the terrorist attacks of 2001 which have inadvertently made it more difficult for scientists and engineers to come to the United States. As a result, policies that were intended to enhance U.S. national security are beginning to undermine the U.S. economy."

"We depend very heavily on a foreign workforce," says Connie Burnette, HR director for Consolidated Shoe, a manufacturer with many international ties. "We need people who can communicate with those in our foreign factories." The heightened security environment can make things tricky sometimes. "We had a programmer who was originally from India. He had stopped in his native country on the way back from China and was delayed there for five weeks, unable to re-enter the U.S. "A lot of it might relate to country of origin," she says. A Brazilian-born worker had no such problems coming in from his home country.

Gerry Berkley-Coats is assistant director for International Support Services for Virginia Tech. He processes all the H-1B applications for Virginia Tech, which brings in between 150 and 160 foreign nationals per year to fill research and faculty positions. Educational institutions are exempt from the cap.

What is behind these numbers? Two factors, he says: "First, Virginia Tech is intentionally becoming very international. Second, the qualifications for international applicants are superior to what we're receiving from U.S. citizens, primarily in computer science, but we've also seen it in engineering, physics, architecture, philosophy, English and math."

Other roadblocks

Other factors are hindering the retention of high-tech talent. "There are no real sources of funding for growing technology firms in this region," says Matthews.

Therefore, "entrepreneurs are going to go elsewhere and [take] the opportunities with them. [Consequently,] fewer jobs are going to be created, which keeps people looking elsewhere for great jobs."

Another roadblock to attracting high-tech workers, he says, is a regional public relations problem. "When I graduated from Virginia Tech . . . the first thing I did was move our company to Northern Virginia . . . nobody reached out and nobody tried to talk us into staying . . . I have to think that most graduating students . . . have no clue . . . that there are more than 120 companies working here [at the Corporate Research Center]." He adds, "If they don't know we're here, of course they're going to leave!"

Matthews' company returned to Blacksburg in 2004.

Until recently, an educational roadblock existed as well. Says Dennie Templeton, director of distance education for Radford University, workers with IT associate degrees who wished to earn a bachelor's degree often found that they did not have the necessary credits to transfer into a four-year program. This required them to take unanticipated classes to meet four-year college degree requirements.

In 2002, Radford University secured a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to address this situation.

Over the past three years, Radford has worked with 12 area community colleges to develop "articulation" agreements allowing computer science and IT students to transfer seamlessly into Radford's baccalaureate programs.

"Because we will have a wider level of student choices-two-year degrees, four-year degrees, master's-it will make it easier for workers to stay in the area," he says. As an added benefit, more students are applying to Radford's programs from community colleges around the state, bringing more potential workers into the region.

Pipeline

"Here's the big issue," says Shoun. "Is your region preparing the next generation workforce for high-tech jobs?"

He describes the high-tech worker "pipeline" that is being constructed in the Lynchburg area:

* Four-year universities: with improved articulation agreements as described above.

* Community colleges: responding directly to industry needs by adding new programs such as nuclear technology support.

* High schools: Shoun says a brand new NSF grant is being implemented with a specific focus on science, technology, engineering and math studies.

* Middle schools: Over the past three summers, week-long career exploration academies have been offered in various fields, including nuclear, aviation, IT, health care, building trades and "Women in Engineering."

Other strategies

"We need leadership at a federal level to get young people inspired to enter fields like engineering, math and science," says Foster.

Looking closer to home, he suggests the region begin marketing local software companies as their own cluster. "There are about 30 software companies in NewVA, mostly small firms . . . We've got to show the outside world that we've got something here that attracts these companies...This in turn would attract workers."

Warman brings his suggestions down to the individual employer level, suggesting:

* Make pay scales more in line with larger cities.

* Offer challenging work.

* Make an investment in a less-experienced recruit.

* Use contract-to-hire options.

(Deborah Nason is a contributing editor for the Business Journal. She lives in Roanoke.)

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