May 22, 2008
On Tuesday, I wrote about the difficulties that Japan and the UK are having in finding engineers for their local industries. For the flip side of that discussion, today I'm going to talk about how the H-1B visa program continues to agitate the tech community in the US. H-1Bs, of course, are the visas that allow foreign workers with technology skills to be employed in the United States.
There's actually a good report about the ongoing H-1B debate over at TechNewsWorld. In Part 1 of the series, Andrew Burger outlines the system as it exists today; in Part 2 he talks about some possible solutions. In a nutshell, the US tech industry has taken the stance that the current H-1B program doesn't allocate enough visa slots for workers to fill local demands and this is hurting their ability to do business, not to mention national competitiveness. Tech labor advocates argue there are plenty of native workers, but visas are being used by companies to get access to cheaper foreign labor. Burger does an excellent job of illuminating each perspective, so I'd encourage everyone to read the two-part article in full.
One aspect of the controversy seems pretty clear to me. IT companies are using the H-1B program to control labor costs. That in itself is no crime, since all businesses strive to keep labor costs under control. The problem is the program was never intended to be an affirmative action scheme for foreign workers. It was only meant to make up for shortfalls in the local tech labor pool.
This is where it gets murky. Big IT companies like Intel, Google and Microsoft that hire a lot of new workers each year claim there aren't enough tech workers to go around. The conventional wisdom is that the US is perennially short of qualified engineers and scientists to fill the job openings. The qualified adjective is the key, since it becomes a way for an employer to become a discriminating shopper in the labor marketplace. The attitude is expressed when company execs say that they must hire "the best and the brightest" to keep their competitive edge.
The reality though is a bit different, at least according to Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at University of California, Davis. He says the argument that the H-1B program spurs innovation and keeps us competitive is unfounded. In a recent report he wrote on the topic, Matloff concludes that most H-1B visas are issued for "people of just ordinary talent, doing ordinary work." According to the data, the majority of workers hired under the program are at the lower expertise levels. And even though H-1B workers are supposed to be paid at the "prevailing wage," that turns out to be a rather slippery term to define.
In Matloff's opinion, the industry is preferentially hiring foreign workers so they don't have to pay more expensive native-born employees. Nor do they have to be bothered with retraining older tech workers, something US companies are particularly loathe to do. (And by the way, in the fast-moving tech world, "older" may just mean someone in their 30s.) The data suggests that there are generally enough US-born scientists and engineers in overall numbers to meet local demands, even if the skill sets don't always exactly match the job openings. But in the absence of a more regulated H-1B program, that kind of environment sets the table for discrimination.
What's a government to do? Public policy always has to find the right balance between business and labor. But in the current tech-driven society, where companies like Google, Microsoft and Intel are treated as gods, it's hard to argue against their interests. There are a few H-1B reformers in Congress, like Senators Dick Grubin (D-Ill.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who would like to close the loopholes and create a more level playing field. But the feds are heavily lobbied to expand the H-1B program. Microsoft's Bill Gates rarely misses an opportunity to lecture Congress on the dire employment needs of the industry. In fact, some tech worker immigration proponents want to essentially implement the labor equivalent of free trade: get rid of the H-1B quotas (currently capped at 65,000) altogether. Others are proposing a points system, like the kind used by Canada, Australia, and the UK, that rate potential foreign workers against national employment needs.
The inexorable march of globalization will likely force some tough decisions. Whatever path is taken though, it's certain that history will not be kind to those that fail to adapt.
Posted by Michael Feldman - May 21, 2008 @ 9:00 PM, Pacific Daylight Time
Michael Feldman is the editor of HPCwire.
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