Observations Observations

December 1, 2000

Got Techies?

VideoShare, a video application service provider in Watertown, Massachusetts, is attracting much envy. Founded with six employees in November 1999, VideoShare has recruited 33 workers over the past six months and plans to hire 60 more by year-end, despite the extreme shortage of information-technology (IT) workers. Their weapon hunting abroad. More than a quarter of their employees are from India, France, and Indonesia. This is not rare in the industry; last year, more than one-half of H-1B visas (temporary work visas for specialty occupations) went to computer system analysts and programmers.

But searching around the globe is costly for small firms. So many rely on businesses that specialize in finding and evaluating IT workers abroad and can handle most of the work for H-1B visas. VideoShare works with EMDS, a Europe-based recruiting agency. "As a startup, we need someone who can perform right away,” says George Best, VideoShare's human resources director. "I tell the recruiter that I want people with experience in XML, COM, and DCOM, and they have the resources to find them and bring them here.”

Other firms bring in foreign workers as consultants who work for clients on a project-by-project basis. NetGuru Systems, an IT consulting firm in Waltham, Massachusetts, started recruiting employees from India using its founder"s personal network. NetGuru also helps new employees make the transition to the United States. "When they flew me to Boston from Delhi, they had a guesthouse for me, [they] helped me open a bank account, and even took me to grocery stores,” recalls database manager Ramnik Mayor.

Still other companies deal with the labor shortage by shipping work abroad. For the past five years, Putnam Investments has subcontracted projects in Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India. "We do designing and project management in Boston. But programming is a commodity skill. It doesn't matter where you code C++,” says Gavan Taylor, chief information officer, who himself was recruited from the United Kingdom by a headhunter. Still subcontracting is not an option for everyone. VideoShare won't consider it, for fear that its cutting-edge technology could be stolen. And for some projects, the interaction across all levels of development is so frequent that subcontracting becomes impractical.

As the technology boom spreads abroad, U.S. firms must also compete for workers with local startups. "It is getting harder to recruit in India,” says Ramesh Chillar of NetGuru. "We [already] had to compete with [Indian] branches of Microsoft and Oracle,” he says. Now he must also vie with Indian high-tech firms - often started by IT workers with experience from abroad - who can offer job candidates the prospect of a successful IPO.



About 137,500 temporary work visas in specialty occupations (H-1B visas) were granted for 1999, accounting for about 5 percent of the gains in U.S. nonfarm payroll employment.
  System analysis/programming
  Electrical/electronics engineering
United Kingdom
  Other computer-related occupations
  College/university education
  Accountants, auditors, and related occupations
Source: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service
Note: Data is for fiscal 1999, which runs from October 1998 to September 1999

Down on the Lobster Farm

Harvesting lobster is a tradition in New England. When the town of Camden, Maine, prohibited lobster boats from mooring in the harbor because the sights and smells of a working fishing port seemed distasteful to residents, the drop in tourism was so severe that the town was forced to recant. Lobsters are also Maine"s most valuable fish resource, bringing 52.3 million pounds to the dock in 1999 worth an estimated $180 million.

But, will this traditional image of the New England seascape remain on tomorrow's postcards? Wild fish stocks have been declining for centuries from overfishing, habitat destruction, and pollution. Some, like the legendary cod fishery of Georges Bank (influential in naming the Cape), have rebounded from near collapse in 1994 to small annual catches after legislation restricted groundfishing and implemented catch limits. In a growing number of other cases, such as Atlantic salmon, however, farming has almost entirely replaced traditional fishing, and some have wondered whether the lobster industry might go the same way.

The technology to breed and hatch lobsters has existed for some time. State-run lobster hatcheries were operating in New England at least as far back as fifty years ago. But, farming lobsters profitably is another issue. Unlike schooling finfish such as striped bass, which can be held in large tanks, lobsters are territorial and cannibalistic - they will attack and feed on each other. So farms must separate the lobsters by compartmentalizing each individual in latticework, which creates complications for feeding and waste removal.

An even bigger problem is the lobsters' slow rates of growth. The five to seven years needed to bring farmed lobsters to market size is costly in terms of food and labor. Some researchers claim to have reduced this interval to two to three years using warm water, but no one has thus far used this finding in a commercial farming endeavor. In contrast, a farm's competition, the lobster boat, simply plucks up the finished product from the ocean.

And, so far, lobsters seem plentiful; landings in 1998 were double the catch of 1980. Whether this is evidence that the stock is healthy or that it is being overfished is a matter of debate. What is clear, however, is that lobster farming may never develop so long as it is faced with commercial competition from wild stocks. If stocks did decline and more research were undertaken, then farming might become more common. Until then, lobster trap buoys will continue to dot the New England shore. RICHARD BRAUMAN