Utah has such a shortage of high-tech computer engineers, programmers and systems analysts that one of its trade groups asked Congress Wednesday to lift immigration limits on bringing in such workers from abroad.

"Access to the IT (information technology) community's basic commodity, skilled people, has reached a state of crisis," Peter R. Genereaux, president of Utah Information Technologies Association, told the Senate Judiciary Committee.He said a study by its parent Information Technology Association of America estimated that 346,000 such high-tech jobs are currently vacant nationally from lack of skilled workers.

Genereaux said that is especially causing problems in Utah, where high-tech businesses have been growing rapidly.

"The growing and now acute shortage has cause IT vendors to miss new product launch schedules, reduce customer support and achieve lower-than-expected financial results," he said.

He noted that the number of information technology companies in Utah increased from 1,500 in 1994 to 2,250 in 1997. And the number of their employees skyrocketed 25 per-cent from 32,000 to 40,000 in those four years.

While he said such companies are seeking to attract more U.S. students and retrain workers from other fields, the only way to keep up with growth now is to allow more foreign high-tech workers to immigrate.

However, he said the current limit on such workers sponsored by U.S. companies is 65,000 per year. He said 27,333 such visas were issued in January alone. "At this rate, the cap will be reached this spring."

Genereaux added, "The Utah IT community strongly believes the cap should be eliminated or increased substantially."

Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said that need may be valid but America should also work hard to train more of its current citizens to fill such jobs in the future.

"According to the Department of Commerce, the United States will generate more than 100,000 information technology jobs each year for the next decade," Hatch said, adding such companies in Utah "plan to add almost 20,000 jobs annually in the next three years."

But a Clinton administration official said Congress must first enact needed reforms in the temporary program - known as the H-1B program - before it would be willing to consider raising the current ceiling of 65,000 workers.

Those reforms include ensuring that companies first make a serious effort to hire American workers. "Greater protections for U.S. workers are needed because many employers use the program to employ not the best and the brightest, but rather entry-level foreign workers," said Raymond Uhalde, an acting assistant secretary of labor.

In addition, Uhalde said, if there is a shortage of U.S. workers, immigration should be used only as a last resort. "Increased immigration can only be a very small part of the solution and must be viewed as a minor complement to the (economic) development of the United States," he said.