You may remember Darin Wedel. Early last year, his wife, Jennifer, asked President Barack Obama during a town hall-style conference call, about H-1B visas. Her husband had been laid off from Texas Instruments, she told him, despite strong credentials that included a patent he held.
Why does the government continue "to issue and extend H-1B visas when there are tons of Americans just like my husband with no job?" Mrs. Wedel asked the president.
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Obama never directly answered the question. But he backs immigration reform legislation approved in the Senate that will substantially raise the base 65,000 cap on H-1B visas to as high as 180,000.
What that H-1B change would mean for electrical engineers, if the House agrees to the legislation, remains to be seen. Wedel, who trained as an electrical engineer and worked in the semiconductor industry, has been in the bull's-eye of some of the most turbulent changes in his field.
Software development employment has increased over the past 10 years, but not all IT areas are doing as well. And electrical engineering declined over this same period.
Some of that decline is a consequence of a fall-off in manufacturing, argue some. Offshore outsourcing gets blamed, as more engineering is done overseas.
Engineering is connected to manufacturing, and "manufacturing is shrinking as a fraction of our economy, as work moves offshore," said Stan Sorscher, labor representative at the SPEEA (Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace), a union representing more than 24,000 scientists, engineers, technical and professional employees in the aerospace industry.
"Engineering work follows manufacturing," said Sorscher, who has a Ph.D. in physics. "As low-tech suppliers take on more complex work, they will necessarily develop their own capacity for manufacturing R&D. As part of the offshoring business model, U.S.-based manufacturers transfer manufacturing technology to foreign suppliers and often integrate the offshore manufacturing into the overall design process," he said.
Wedel has found new work. He has been employed for about a year as a quality engineer for a large eye care/pharma company.
Ask about outsourcing, Wedel said it has "affected just about anyone with a technical degree -- it's purely business getting its way with government. Lobbyists have bamboozled our politicians into thinking we have a shortage of qualified engineers and that we need to import more via the H-1B -- simply not true.
"For electrical engineers, unless you are in the actual design of circuits, then you're not in demand," said Wedel, arguing that much of the job loss in the field is due to the closing of fabrication facilities.
Electrical engineers "are the life blood of our industry, whether they are designing, manufacturing or selling our products," Darla Whitaker, senior vice president, worldwide Human Resources, for Texas Instruments, testified during a 2011 Congressional hearing. Whitaker urged Congress to do more to improve immigration.