High tech executives in Missoula told Congressman Greg Gianforte that finding qualified labor, and the cost of health coverage are among their biggest challenges.
Gianforte invited a handful of representatives from Montana’s growing high-tech industry to meet with him Monday.
The 10 men who huddled around a meeting table at the Missoula-based incubator MonTec run Montana companies offering everything from analytics, e-commerce, energy, tourism and security services.
They had a free-flowing discussion on a variety of topics, including the hiring and recruiting of young talent.
Here’s University of Montana Associate Professor of Computer Science Rob Smith.
“Nationally, I think we’re doing an awful job of producing enough high-tech trained employees,” he says.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: After publication of this story, Rob Smith asked us to clarify that his "comments were given as a private citizen and not a representative of the university of Montana.")
He partly lays the blame on the nation’s education system, which he says is not always very responsive to the growing demands of the tech sector.
“Everywhere from K-12 to post-secondary education, it’s just not a message that’s being communicated," Smith says. "Highly complex jobs aren’t going away anytime soon. The best way to prepare for those is taking some training in complexity. Computer science is really the best fit for that.”
Smith suggests universities quickly start hiring more computer science professors and possibly even offering them extra benefits or higher wages not readily available to other teaching staff. He calls it a good investment, noting tech jobs typically offer two to three times the average Montana wage.
Here's Congressman Greg Gianforte.
"We heard some very innovative ideas in the room about how the private sector should be working more closely with the public sector, alternative education approaches, more vocational type coding schools. Part of the obligation coming back on the employers to make sure we connect the dots so that people can have productive and worthwhile livelihoods here in the state,” Gianforte says.
Tech sector employee health coverage generated a lot of discussion Monday. Again, UM professor Rob Smith.
“It costs about $30,000 a year to offer health benefits to a typical employee. That’s a significant chunk of a compensation package that’s not necessarily transparent to the employee, and that's not necessarily a $30,000 value-add to the employee.”
Smith is also the founder and CEO of a new specialized data processing company called Prime Labs.
“So we’re looking for ways that we can stay competitive in terms of benefits offered in a way that serves the needs of both employees and employers.”
Smith advocates for what are called Health Savings Accounts. HSAs are like personal savings accounts, but the money can only be used for qualifying medical expenses. He describes them as an attractive option.
“Cause it’s very transparent. It’s a strong tax benefit because it’s pre-tax for the employee. It’s a way I think that we can stay competitive and still offer a high degree of care in a way that fair for all employees, not in a way that’s biased towards those who happen to be older and have large families.”
Agains, Congressman Greg Gianforte.
“Twice as many people in America today on the Health Savings Accounts than are on the Obamacare exchanges. We’re looking at changes in the tax code that would make those even more attractive to make sure we make healthcare affordable for Montanans, preserve rural access to care and protect people with pre-existing conditions.”
Congressman Gianforte has voted to eliminate the Affordable Care Act. Prior to that 2008 law, insurance companies could legally deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.
The Affordable Care Act limits the use of Health Savings Accounts. Republican lawmakers have proposed increasing annual contribution limits and expanding them to allow them to cover health insurance premiums.
Kathleen Williams, the Democratic challenger for Gianforte's House seat in November says the ACA individual marketplace, is, “absolutely broken.”
Williams favors reinstating federal payments to insurers under the ACA to keep the cost of individual policies down. And she says she favors allowing people age 55 and older buy in to Medicare, which she says would, “set the stage to transform our healthcare system in a cost-effective, achievable way.”
Gianforte, a former tech executive, who founded RightNow Technologies, in the late 90s said he enjoyed his time with the tech execs on Monday and will take their ideas and input with him back to Washington D.C.
"This is kind of a birds of a feather group for me," Gianforte says. "I’m a techie. It’s nice to be with some fellow techies.”
Montana’s senior U.S. senator, Democrat Jon Tester, held a similar meeting with tech execs in Missoula last April.