American tech workers lose out in H-1B lottery

Opponents argue there's no shortage of skilled U.S. workers and warn higher visa caps could lead to exodus of tech jobs

Some tech companies won the lottery this week -- not the virtual one creating overnight Bitcoin millionaires, but an actual lottery granting skilled-worker visas known as H-1Bs. However, if Congress answers the tech industry's calls to raise the numbers of visas, it could lead to a hemorrhaging of American tech jobs, opponents warn.

For the first time since the 2008 recession, demand for H-1B visas outstripped caps, and the U.S. government held a computer-generated lottery to distribute the 20,000 slots allotted for foreign graduates of U.S. universities with advanced degrees and the 65,000 H-1B visa slots. Yahoo, Google, Intel, and other tech giants are lobbying hard for higher caps. Microsoft has attempted to frame the issue as a patriotic call to arms, with general counsel Brad Smith telling NPR that more H-1B visas would be good for the country: "We need to continue to attract some of the best and brightest people in the world to come and join us in world-leading [research and development] efforts."

While supporters of higher visa caps may insist a shortage of trained workers is stifling the competitiveness of U.S. companies, a 2007 Urban Institute study showed the United States is producing far more people with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees than it needs. And "in a rare moment of candor," Computerworld reports, "a Texas Instruments executive stated in House testimony in 2011 that our educational system is producing plenty of American engineers."

Indeed, the IEEE reported this week that unemployment for electrical engineers -- people at the heart of many tech innovations -- rose sharply in the first quarter.

Basic laws of supply and demand also seem to debunk claims of a labor shortage. Most shortages fuel higher prices, but as InfoWorld's Bill Snyder has pointed out, salaries in computer- and math-related fields for workers with a college degree rose only 4.5 percent between 2000 and 2011. "If these skills are so valuable and in such short supply, salaries should at least keep pace with the tech companies' profits, which have exploded," wrote Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, in an opinion piece for the New York Times.

If there is no shortage of high-tech workers, why are companies pushing for more H-1B visas? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the biggest employers of foreign tech workers are offshore-outsourcing consulting firms. That trend will only continue and lead to more offshore outsourcing if caps are raised, according to Ron Hira, a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who studies tech immigration issues.

As the New York Times piece noted:

Workers under the H-1B program aren't like domestic workers -- because they have to be sponsored by an employer, they are more or less indentured, tied to their job and whatever wage the employer decides to give them. Moreover, too many are paid at wages below the average for their occupation and location: Over half of all H-1B guest workers are certified for wages in the bottom quarter of the wage scale.

An NPR report bears this out, citing the case of Rennie Sawade, a software designer from Michigan with 30 years of experience, who almost landed a plum job at Microsoft -- only to lose out to someone from offshoring firm Tata Consultancy. The woman at his placement agency "said her jaw just dropped when they found out how little Microsoft was paying this person from Tata Consultancy to do this job," Sawade says.

Rather than more H-1B visas, IEEE senior legislative representative Russ Harrison told Reuters that he favors giving foreign workers permanent residency, which would help boost wages and increase job mobility for newcomers and the reduce wage depression that offshoring creates. However, "the IEEE and others who see flaws in the H-1B program say they are outgunned politically on the issue. Computer and Internet companies spent an estimated $132.5 million on lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics," the Reuters report said.

There are already 500,000 workers in the United States on H-1B visas. Bringing over more workers on H-1B visas, the Economic Policy Institute's Eisenberry argues, "would obviously darken job prospects for America's struggling young scientists and engineers. But it would also hurt our efforts to produce more. If the message to American students is, 'Don't bother working hard for a high-tech degree, because we can import someone to do the job for less,' we could do significant long-term damage to the high-tech educational system we value so dearly."

A shortage of skilled workers may be a trumped-up excuse for raising H-1B visa caps, but ironically it could help contribute to an actual shortage in the future. Only in America?

This article, "American tech workers lose out in H-1B lottery," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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