As many as 5,000 high school and college students could receive tuition assistance, and high-technology businesses that hire them as interns would be eligible for tax breaks, under an incentive program proposed yesterday by Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R).
Gilmore made the proposal in a speech to his Commission on Information Technology, which issued a report yesterday that offered fresh evidence of widespread shortages of high-tech workers in the state, especially in Northern Virginia.
The commission estimated that Virginia has as many as 30,000 vacant technology jobs. Responding to the commission's findings, Gilmore said his Virginia Technology Internship Program, or VTIP, would be a good first step toward filling those vacancies.
"This program is a challenge," he said. "I challenge Virginia businesses to hire 5,000 advanced high school and college students. This is a partnership to get people into an internship program and get a connection to our companies."
The 38-member commission of technology executives, educators and lawmakers, appointed by Gilmore, had called for state backing for an internship program as one of its top recommendations. The governor offered few specifics, however. He would not say how much money companies would receive for each intern, or how much tuition assistance students could expect. He also declined to say how much the program would cost the state, saying such details will be worked out by the time he presents the idea to next year's General Assembly.
"Maybe Virginia can help with some additional cash and encourage businesses to take a chance with new people," Gilmore said.
Technology Secretary Donald W. Upson said the governor envisions a three-year program that gives tax credits to companies in the first year as a way of getting them to take the risk of employing less experienced students.
If an intern returned for a second summer, Upson said, he or she would receive tuition assistance and the company would get a smaller tax credit. In the third year, all of the money would go to the student.
Upson said a database would be created listing all students who have completed a certain curriculum. Those students would be eligible to participate in VTIP, making them attractive to firms looking to hire.
"That's what the industry has said. They just want to know the interns have math, science, English and are smart," Upson said.
Educators reacted positively to Gilmore's proposal. Pat Carretta, director of career services at George Mason University, where Gilmore spoke, said VTIP would benefit both students and businesses.
"His concept of reinforcing it over several years is a positive one," Carretta said. "There's so much that the employers and the students gain from that. It's exciting to hear that our governor recognizes the value of integrating work and learning."
Executives at high-tech firms also applauded Gilmore's proposals.
Todd Stottlemyer, a member of the governor's commission and an executive at BTG Inc., a technology contractor in Fairfax County, said his company and others would be wise to hire more interns to fill some of the worker shortage gap.
"If you can hook them early it's an advantage," he said, "because when they are done they are going to come to work for you."
In his speech, Gilmore promised to review the commission's full report, titled "Investing in the Future: Toward a 21st-Century Information Technology Workforce," and propose other legislation as needed.
The goal, he said, is to make Virginia the leading location for the information technology industry, surpassing even already well- established places such as Silicon Valley, Boston and Austin.
But Virginia will never accomplish that without enough qualified workers, he said.
"In truth, this is not just a Virginia issue. It's a national issue, indeed a global one," he said. "We will do everything possible to enhance our technology workers and encourage them to stay in Virginia."