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Cities face crisis in search for tech workers

A crisis in the technology workforce is brewing. A growing number of baby boomers are leaving, and not enough young people are enrolling in science and technology education. Add to that the number of people who are lacking computer skills, and cities have a challenge with being economically competitive.

"Some may not view it as a crisis yet," said Maria Wynne, a Microsoft senior director of economic development in the U.S. public sector. "In the U.S., up to 70 percent of the jobs in the next 5 to 7 years ... will require computer and communications skills. We do not have a pipeline of skilled people to fill these jobs."

Mayors and government technology employees gathered in a casual setting today at the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Miami. They shared ideas on best practices of improving digital literacy in cities, and Miami Mayor Manny Diaz presided over the forum.

Diaz advised other mayors to look to the private sector for funding, since city resources can be limited.

"Don't go crazy trying to Wi-Fi the entire city," Diaz added, warning that when a project is too ambitious, there will be problems with paying the bills.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels stressed that cities cannot just depend on luck that its residents will keep up with the changes in computers in the future. Even with Microsoft Corp. and  Amazon.com in its backyard, 20 percent of Seattle does not have a computer in the home, Nickels said.

If a city is going to have a competitive economy, "you've got to have the people with these skills, regardless of what your base industries are," Nickels said. "Even if your main industry seems to be one that's a smoke-stack industry - it doesn't matter."

After the forum I spoke with, James E. Osteen Jr., assistant director of Miami's information technology department. He said if education isn't improved, South Florida will lose more jobs to other tech hubs and jobs will be outsourced overseas.

"If we want to bring more industries in here, we have to have an edge,''  Osteen said. That includes having a stronger pool of computer competent workers and intelligent consumers.

The city's Elevate Miami program is working to do just that through partnerships with the education system and having public computer and Internet access at parks and senior centers. There are also programs to educate small business owners on things such as how to create websites, use accounting software and locate funding sources.

"I think the most important investment in people is education," Diaz told the crowd. "And digital literacy is giving them the tools. Not everyone is going to take advantage of it. But at least your giving them the tools, the fighting chance, to compete."

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