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Forum Addresses Unemployment and Talent Shortages in Silicon Valley

Employees of Milpitas Unified School District attended the "Silicon Valley in Transition" forum to learn about the economic prospects for Silicon Valley.

While the statewide employment rate remains double-digit, Silicon Valley is expected to see a 15 percent job growth rate over the next two years in information and communications technologies (ICT), according to a new study published by four workforce investment boards of the region.

The workforce investment boards belong to NOVA (North Valley Consortium) in the city of San Jose, Santa Cruz County and San Mateo County. Based on their research, they had a community forum, "Silicon Valley in Transition," in Cupertino on Thursday.

Among attendees were employees of Milpitas Unified School district, including vocational specialist Annette Rodarte and transition assistant and job coach Michelle Eacret.

Rodarte and Eacret said they had intended to ask the panel to discuss unemployment problems with special needs people, but time ran out before they were ready to raise their questions.

"People with disabilities have the highest unemployment rate," said Rodarte. "I wish we could have brought that up to the panel."

The forum had a panel of two researchers and three elected officials: U.S. Rep. Mike Honda (D-Cupertino), and state Assemblywoman Nora Campos (D-San Jose) and Assemblyman Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park).

Following Cupertino Mayor Gilbert Wong's welcome remarks and the moderator Kim Walesh's introduction, researcher Josh Williams of BW Research Partnership presented the latest study by the workforce investment boards. He said only lower-skill jobs shrank in Silicon Valley.

"We only lost jobs that don't have to be here," said Williams. "Higher-skill jobs are actually growing and facing talent shortages."

Williams attributed the paradoxical talent shortages amid unemployment problems to the imminent retirement of baby boomers and the insufficient number of science, technology, engineering and math majors among college graduates.

The study cited by Williams points out 7,460 ICT establishments that employ 215,609 workers in the Silicon Valley region. It also names the most desired and fastest-growing occupations in Silicon Valley: software engineers, field applications engineers, quality assurance engineers and project managers.

To target the high-tech jobs that stay in Silicon Valley, Willliams said job seekers must demonstrate problem-solving skills in addition to technical know-how.

"Entrepreneurship is critical, whether you want to start your own business or not," said Williams. "Job titles become less relevant. You must understand and connect with other types of work."

Another researcher, Stephen Levy from the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, brought up two challenges Silicon Valley faces in terms of keeping businesses, namely high wages and high housing costs.

To make business owners willing to pay high wages and high housing costs, Levy said Silicon Valley must maintain a large talent pool unrivaled by others anywhere else. And to attract talent, he said, Silicon Valley must offer an outstanding quality of life by improving housing, education and traffic.

"If we don't invest, we will die," Levy said, posing the question of how to invest in Silicon Valley's economy to the elected officials on the panel.

In response, Gordon said he often heard complaints from the business community about regulation and taxation, but when he asked which regulation or which tax should be modified, he didn't get a definite answer, and that made him believe the problem lies elsewhere.

"It's not regulation. It's not taxation," said Gordon. "It's the lack of a trained workforce."

Gordon said schools now put too much emphasis on performance tests but not enough effort in engaging students in critical thinking or teamwork.

Honda expressed his agreement with Gordon's view and added that arts education helps shape well-rounded students, but has been put aside.

"Education has to be a national priority as much as national security," said Honda.

To that end, all the panelists agreed that it's necessary to educate policy makers. This can be difficult, according to Campos.

"It has been a real challenge to educate other Assembly members how important Silicon Valley is to California and the rest of the country," said Campos.

To overcome the challenge, Campos said she will distribute the report from the four workforce investment boards to all Assembly members.

For the complete report, click here.

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