China trade and foreign workers top agenda for high-tech firms

U.S. high-tech companies confront two critical problems — securing new markets where they can sell their products and finding enough workers to keep producing them. Solutions to both appear to lie overseas, and the companies have charted a course for Congress to help them reach their goals.

Their top priority is assured access to China, which has the potential to become the world's largest consumer of high-tech equipment and products, said Tim Bennett, the American Electronics Association's senior vice president for international policy. U.S. companies want Congress to support normalized trade relations with China and back China's admission into the World Trade Organization, Bennett said Monday.

China looms as a double-edged sword. If trade relations are normalized, China is poised to become one of the largest markets for U.S.-made high-tech equipment. But if trade relations are not normalized, U.S. manufacturers won't have access to the Chinese market. Instead, China is likely to develop its own technology industries and then compete with the United States outside the international rules of the World Trade Organization, Bennett said.

Second to China, companies want to be able to hire more foreign high-tech workers. "Every sector of the high-tech industry has employee problems," said John Palafoutas, senior vice president for domestic policy.

The AEA wants up to 80,000 more visas for foreign high-tech workers to fill vacant jobs now and higher quotas to fill more jobs in the future. Foreign students studying for technology careers should be issued visas to encourage them to stay, Palafoutas said.

The AEA represents more than 3,000 high-tech companies, from semiconductor makers to Internet service providers.

Other top legislative issues for the companies are:

* Internet taxes: The AEA doesn't want them, and is worried that states will pass a patchwork of complicated and conflicting tax laws. The association will press Congress for simplicity if there are to be taxes.

* Stock options: The Internal Revenue Service, the Labor Department and other regulators have said companies must offer stock options to hourly workers. That would be a "bookkeeping nightmare" and an enormous expense that might kill stock options for everyone, Palafoutas said. That's a problem for high-tech companies, where stock options are a preferred recruiting and retention tool.

* Internet privacy: Companies favor self-regulation and worry that states may pass a plethora of conflicting regulations. "Fifty different state laws are going to drive people crazy," Palafoutas said.

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