Rob Smith is willing to go to some pretty extreme measures to address the shortage of prospective workers in the high-tech field.
Smith, CEO of Prime Labs Inc. in Missoula, who is also an associate professor of computer science at the University of Montana, said if need be, he'd take part in a lottery to eliminate 20 percent of tenure track faculty, simply to divert more resources toward the computer science department in an effort to boost the number of those entering the high-tech field after college.
"I'd be willing to do that," he said Monday.
That's after Smith has already put some skin in the game. For the last three years, he's tried without success to entice private companies to commit to helping fund expansions of the university's computer science department. He's tried to organize a group of companies that could pledge to donate with the help of a matching philanthropic group, to no avail.
Smith did establish the high-tech career fair at the university, but said it's a struggle to even get companies to attend.
The inadequate high-tech workforce was amid the top concerns brought by local industry leaders to a roundtable conference with U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte Monday at the Montana Technology Enterprise Center in Missoula. A representative for the congressman, who is up for re-election this year, said the visit was strictly business, not a campaign event.
Also voiced during the hour-plus meeting were concerns about rising health care costs crippling startups and small businesses.
"You can hear the frustration with some of these people," Gianforte said. "It's an increasing portion of their budget and it's threatening jobs, so we've got to get these health care costs under control."
Brent Campbell, CEO and president of WGM Group, said the number of employees at his company has climbed 50 percent in the last year. That can create issues with health care costs — Campbell's biggest concern — which have doubled from $250,000 to $500,000 in the past four years. He can't raise his costs fast enough to keep up with that kind of increase, he said.
"Health care is a big issue for our company," he said. "I continue to hear Congress sort of nipping at the edges of the health care problem but not really solving the problem."
The kind of policy changes Campbell hopes to see include expanding the health savings account programs and facilitating employer health insurance programs. But even those big ideas, he said, aren't enough to bring relief in the short term.
"I think we need bolder action on that because it's costing us pretty substantially every year, about a 25 percent increase every year."
Gianforte said the conversation needs to balance a break in costs without sacrificing public safety. In the coming months, he said he expects Congress will vote to expand the health savings account programs and eliminate the medical device tax.
Some business leaders also pointed to concern over the recent Supreme Court decision, South Dakota v. Wayfair Inc., which determined states can require sales tax on online purchases for retailers with no physical presence in the state.
Kevin O'Reilly, CEO at Orbital Shift, said the different requirements of different tax jurisdictions, which number in the thousands if retailers ship around the country, would be crushing to small businesses.
Gianforte said he disagreed with the Supreme Court ruling because he believed it worked against small business, "and Montana is a small business state."
"If you're a single individual doing retail, you have to be aware of every tax code," he said. "It's a burden that will just crush that business."
Health care aside, hiring seemed to be the common denominator of the day. Nearly everyone in the room raised a hand when Gianforte asked how many companies were looking to fill vacant job positions.
"For the first time in decades we have more jobs available in the country than we have people looking for work," Gianforte said after the meeting. "When you've got customer orders, and you don't have people to design and build and deliver those products, it means you turn revenue away."
Gianforte suggested companies take action that echoed one of his early campaign stumping points: targeting Montanans who left the state for work and are looking to come home. He also talked about funding more resources at universities, the way his Gianforte Family Foundation funded the hiring of two full-time lecturers at the university.
Smith, who was willing to put his job on the chopping block to create resources for his department at the university, said it's challenging to bring quality lecturers here because UM only pays about half of the market rate for the job. He said he believes that diverting funds away from other departments needs to be on the table (Gianforte did say he has concerns about government "picking winners and losers"), and there needs to be more support from above the school system to make it happen.
"Someone higher than the department [of education] needs to make these changes," he said.