Numbers Can Be Misleading

Opinion: Tech employment is up, but that's not the whole story.

Full employment is a concept that should make everyone happy, correct? Not exactly. In its latest—and much-anticipated—technology employment report, the American Electronics Association points to rising wages; to increasing numbers of high-tech jobs; and, in particular, to some professional categories where the unemployment rate is less than 2 percent, which basically constitutes full employment.

First, the numbers. In 2006, there were 5.8 million high-tech jobs in the United States. That number was up 3 percent, or 147,000 jobs, from the previous year. While the communications sector continued to lose jobs, those losses were more than offset by other sectors, such as the engineering and tech services industry, which gained 66,300 jobs to put that sector at an all-time employment high. The unemployment rate was 1.9 percent for electrical engineers and 2.5 percent for those in computer and math occupations. In 2005, the tech industry paid an annual average wage of $75,500, 86 percent more than the average private-sector wage of $40,500 for that year, according to the report.

So jobs are up, unemployment is down, and wages are up. Whats there to complain about? According to the AEA, this good news masks a continuing crunch as fewer students graduate with technical degrees, and visa restrictions block degreed foreign workers from U.S. jobs.

As AEA President and CEO William Archey stated in the report: "While we are encouraged by the pickup in tech employment, we are committed to the long-term health of the industry, the economy and our nation. We have some serious challenges ahead. Companies of all sizes continue to have problems recruiting highly qualified and educated individuals to work for them, whether those individuals are foreign or domestic. This was reflected in the 2.5 percent unemployment rate for computer scientists and the below 2 percent unemployment rate for engineers in 2006.

"This problem is twofold: 1) the lack of American kids enrolling in and graduating from math, science, and engineering programs and 2) a U.S. high-skilled visa system that is broken. This April, within two days of the start of taking applications, the U.S. government received 133,000 applications for 65,000 H-1B visas—those visas reserved for high-skilled individuals. And this is for jobs starting in October of 2007."

Its this discussion of the lack of interest in technical education paths and, more pointedly, the AEAs support of a broader visa policy that is sure to touch off controversy. As far as the education argument goes, its hard to argue it would not be good for the country to provide additional support to education. In the past, Ive argued that all education—including the humanities and the arts, rather than solely math and sciences—deserves increased support. A student who is comfortable moving through many cultures, speaks the language of foreign cultures and countries, and understands the social and political dynamics of a society is certainly as well-prepared to contribute to that society as the electrical engineering student debugging the next Roomba floor vacuum.

The H-1B issue is more volatile. Previously, I wrote a column calling for a visa-neutral policy—similar to environmentalists carbon-neutral policy. In essence, for each additional technical visa granted to a company, that company would have to commit to retraining an older worker or providing education for a specific student. That column drew a range of comments from readers, such as Dan at the University of Washington, who wrote that my idea would be "a bullet into the checkbook of every IT worker in America," and Patrick, who stated, "I read your article in eWEEK and was pleased to hear someone else with a reasonable view on this issue."

Heres the bottom line: If we cant figure out a way to innovate in education, such as with accelerated engineering degrees; in employment, such as finding a middle ground for visas; and in our social networks, then the problems arising from seemingly good full-employment news will only be exacerbated with each years new statistics.


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