Microsoft, HP, Intel, Cisco, and Oracle are among the heavyweight IT companies throwing their support behind proposed legislation that would nearly double the number of H-1B visas the feds could dole out each year, from 65,000 to 115,000. The Immigration Innovation Act of 2013 (I-Squared, for short) would funnel some of the money from H-1B-related fees toward funding STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education in U.S. schools and colleges and retraining workers.
The proposed legislation is reminiscent of proposals Microsoft made last year in a report titled "A National Talent Strategy: Ideas for Securing U.S. Competitiveness and Growth" (PDF). In it, the software giant called on the feds to issue 20,000 more H-1B visas and 20,000 additional green cards per year to help fill what it sees as an IT talent gap, stemming from a shortage of skilled tech workers. Microsoft's plan also suggested that the fees go toward improving STEM education at the kindergarten through college level.
Whether or not the United States. is suffering a severe shortage of IT and engineering talents remains a point of contention. Responding to Microsoft's proposals, the EPI (Economic Policy Institute) accused the company of fudging the labor numbers to create the illusion of a STEM skill gap. The group argued that opening the floodgates to IT talent from overseas would only exacerbate STEM unemployment rates in the United States.
In a similar vein, the AFL-CIO, a federation of 57 autonomous national and international unions, pointed to the slow increase in IT salaries in recent years as evidence that there isn't a shortage in skilled tech labor. "During the Tech Boom in 1999, we did see a real labor shortage. Employers offered signing bonuses; job applicants could negotiate, having multiple offers of employment; and workplace perks were profiled in glowing newspaper accounts. Nothing remotely like that is happening now," wrote Stan Sorscher, labor representative for the Society of Professional Engineering Employees.
A recent study from Janco Associates found that IT salaries increased by around 2 percent last year, pushing compensation back up to January 2008 levels. "Economists argue that a chronic labor shortage is technically not possible," wrote Sorscher. "The problem is not a shortage of workers; rather, employers are offering too little."
Under the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, authored by a bipartisan group of senators including Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), and Chris Coons (D-Delaware), the maximum number of H-1B visas for high-skilled foreign workers would jump from 65,000 to 115,000. That number would be adjustable based on economic demand. Dependent spouses of H-1B visa holders would be allowed to work in the United States as well.
Additionally, the act would let foreign students at U.S. schools to apply for green cards while on their student visas, and it would let Congress roll over the unused green cards from year to year.
Finally, the bill would increase fees on the issuance of visas by around 40 percent, up to $1,000. That money would go toward promoting education and worker retraining in the STEM fields.
Bigwigs at various tech companies gushed over the legislation in canned statements, celebrating it as a ideal balance between helping companies compensate for the purported lack of skilled American IT workers today while helping to equip the next generation of U.S. workers with the necessary STEM skills.
"It's critical that America address the shortage of workers with science, technology, engineering, and math skills. There are high-skilled, high-paying jobs being created by American businesses across the country that are being left unfilled because of this gap, said Microsoft General Counsel and Executive VP Brad Smith. "The country's economic and technology leadership are dependent on improving STEM education and implementing broader immigration reform."
Oracle President and CFO Safra Catz posited that the legislation would help make U.S. companies more competitive. "It encourages innovators to work permanently in the U.S. rather than overseas for our foreign competitors," she said.
Whether I-Squared will make it through the Senate remains to be seen, but it's likely some form of immigration reform make its way to President Obama's desk this year.
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