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Women, minorities high-tech group gets backing

Network World Fusion

(IDG) -- After months of delay, the congressional endeavor to attack the country's critical shortage of high-tech workers has turned to a nonprofit group of business, labor and academic leaders to jump-start its efforts.

The Council on Competitiveness, a Washington, D.C., group focused on strengthening the U.S. economy, technological innovation and upgrading the workforce, is now the force behind designs to draw more women and minorities into high-tech fields. A group of seven government agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, pooled their resources and gave the Council $2 million in seed money last week.

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This move comes eight months after a congressional commission presented the House Committee on Science with a roadmap of recommendations they said would solve the country's gross shortage of high-tech workers. Most of those recommendations focused on turning around the fact that women -- who comprise half the population and nearly half the overall workforce -- fill only a small fraction of IT jobs.

"The objective is to give legs to this effort and to not let it gather dust," says John Yochelson, president of the Council on Competitiveness. "We need to give this a sense of national urgency."

The congressional committee that studied the problem for a year reported that if the same number of women as men were working in IT, there would be no shortage of skilled, high-tech labor. But as it stands now, the shortage is estimated to be costing Silicon Valley companies alone $3 billion to $4 billion a year in lost production. Approximately 550,000 IT jobs went unfilled last year and analysts expect that number to balloon to 800,000 by 2002 and one million by 2003.

The committee's recommendations to stem this tide are multifold. They range from holding companies accountable for the percentage and pay scale of their female, people-with-disabilities and minority employees, to making sure the nation's teachers and classrooms are properly prepared to educate children in math and sciences. They also tackle what has been shown to be the continuing problem that girls often are not encouraged in math and science from grade school through college.

Last July, when this roadmap was presented, congressional representatives said they already were working on putting together a group to drive these recommendations forward. The group would be comprised of government, academic and industry leaders.

Congresswoman Constance Morella (R-Md.) said last July that she had already called on a list of industry giants, including Microsoft, IBM, Intel and AT&T, which pledged earlier last year at a White House meeting to donate $1 million per year for 10 years to creating diversity in employment. She said she asked them to give a segment of that annual donation for three years to fund the commission's recommendations.

Morella could not be reached for comment on why those efforts did not materialize.

"It's frustrating," says Martha Daniel, a 19-year IT veteran and CEO of Information Management Resources, an IT staffing, consulting and outsourcing company in Costa Mesa, Calif. "This is being positioned as a women's issue. What this is is a crisis consideration for our labor market, but because it carries the title of women, it does not get the attention it needs."

But Washington, D.C., lobbyist Katherine Didion, executive director of Women in Science, says pulling in the Council on Competitiveness is a "visible step forward."

"I think this is the right recipe in terms of partners and getting private and public money and getting it from many different government agencies," Didion says. "It's not surprising that we had the delay. It would be nice to have those eight months, but we don't, so let's get going."

Yochelson says the process will be in an 'incubation period' for several months while he recruits leaders from industry and government to join in the effort. "We need some high-profile people, not just women and not just minorities, a balanced group of Americans who share the same sense of urgency that we have to affect change."




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