American Workers Not Wanted

July 10, 2007

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H-1B visas have lately come under fire due to abuse stemming from loopholes in the program's current form. Then there's the commotion over whether firms are deliberately not posting jobs where U.S. workers can find them. Global competition for talent is intense, yet the debate over the way to acquire talent is just as heated.

When the United States Senate's sweeping immigration reform bill crashed and burned two weeks ago, it also meant the temporary end for a proposed amendment that would have almost doubled the number of green cards available for engineers and scientists born outside the U.S. and H-1B visas, which allow an immigrant with a bachelor's degree or higher to work in the U.S. for up to six years. The number of H-1B workers allowed into the country currently is capped at 65,000 for undergraduates and 20,000 for graduate students.

This was the second time in about a month that the bill has failed to get enough votes to move forward.

Some people are mourning what they consider a setback; others are celebrating, for the moment, at least.

Global competition for available talent is intense, of course. Yet debate over the way top talent is acquired is just as intense, if not more.

Talent for Competitiveness On the one hand, tech companies say the temporary setback means the industry will continue to be hamstrung by a shortage of highly skilled tech workers.

How important is immigration and the H-1B program to the business community? Pretty damn important.

In March, Bill Gates made his way to Capitol Hill to tell key leaders of both parties that immigration is a top business issue in Washington. "If we hope to maintain our economic and intellectual leadership in the U.S., we must renew this commitment," Gates said in an earlier letter to lawmakers. "Unless there is reform, American competitiveness will suffer as other countries benefit from the international talent that U.S. employers cannot hire or retain."

Laszlo Bock, vice president for people operations at Google, has also made the case before Congress to open the doors to more high-skilled foreign workers and make it easier for them to become citizens. "The fact is that we're in a fierce worldwide competition for top talent unlike ever before," BusinessWeek quoted the Google executive as having said last month. Bock's comments came on a day when business leaders testified on immigration reform.

According to Bock, 8 percent of the company's employees in the U.S. are on H-1B visas.

Companies say they use H-1B visas to recruit math, computer science and engineering employees. They also point out that the majority of science and technical graduates from U.S. colleges are foreign nationals.

Yet opponents of the current visa program say some companies are abusing the system to hire cheap labor. Moreover, they say there are plenty of American workers who can fill these highly skilled high-tech positions.

Abuse, Exploitation and Fraud The H-1B visa program has come under fire recently because of the nature of its users, for one. While the program was originally set up to help U.S. companies hire workers with rare skills, outsourcing companies (particularly from India) have become the most active participants in the program. Last year, 10 of the top 20 recipients of the visas were Indian tech outsourcers, with Infosys and Wipro taking the top two spots, according to BusinessWeek.

While Microsoft often uses the temporary work visas to hire high-level foreign programmers and engineers as they graduate from American universities, and then helps them gain American citizenship so they can stay in the States, Wipro brings from its Indian operations many employees to work at client facilities and then rotates them back to India so they are more effective at providing tech support and other services to clients. Indian outsourcing firms say this data is being misinterpreted, however.

Abuse stemming from loopholes and (lack of) oversight regarding the H-1B program — at least in its current form — are causing a commotion.

"There are three big flaws" in the H-1B program, according to Ron Hira, Ph.D., PE, coauthor of "Outsourcing America: What's Behind Our National Crisis and How We Can Reclaim American Jobs" and assistant professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology, in a recent interview with IT Business Edge:

There are no labor market caps right now, prevailing wage legislation has so many loopholes that employers can and do pay below the prevailing market wage, and there is essentially no oversight of the program. So even though you have all of these laws on the books, no one is looking at the program and doing audits, that kind of thing.

Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California-Davis, last week told CIO Insight that the inevitable increase in the number of H-1B visas and green cards will give high-tech companies the opportunity to exploit the system further.

In a recent online video copied and posted to YouTube by an organization that's been tough on H-1B visas and offshore outsourcing, then spread virally, an attorney from law firm Cohen & Grigsby is shown advising attendees of an immigration-law conference on how to meet the minimum requirements of advertising a job to U.S candidates so that a foreign worker can more easily be hired. The firm's conference dealt with the U.S. government's labor certification requirement for foreign workers, the first step in helping them obtain green cards. The law requires that an employer prove there are no qualified U.S. citizens for a permanent job being offered before hiring a non-citizen.

The existence of the recorded seminar suggests that a number of IT firms deliberately post available job positions in places where qualified, interested American workers won't find them so these firms can then have an excuse for hiring a foreign worker over a domestic one. In the video, the Programmers Guild accuses the firm of using fake job ads to fulfill the Program Electronic Review Management, or PERM, process.

"These ads constitute fraud on American job seekers," says the organization in its text leading into the video, which follows:

"There's no shortage of American workers for these jobs," CIO Insight quoted Matloff as having said. "I don't like being lied to and the tech industry is lying to us. They simply want access to cheap labor."

Supply and Demand Then there's the simple fact of supply and demand: demand for H-1B visas dramatically exceeds supply. In April, the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Service stopped taking applications for fiscal 2008's allotment a mere one day after filing began, when it was flooded with a reported 120,000-150,000 requests for the 65,000 slots available for H-1B visas; hence the outcries for raising the cap. Reasons given for this vary, of course, from "America's need for additional skilled employees" to "businesses wanting cheaper labor from other countries."

For now, any changes to either the number of H-1B visas available or the qualifications required of potential visa recipients will have to be revisited in future legislation or spending bills that are currently making their way through the Senate. Political reform is far from dead, and the debate is far from over.

Resources

Gates to Senate: More Visas by Peter Elstrom BusinessWeek, March 8, 2007

Immigration Reform: Why Business Could Get Burned by Richard S. Dunham BusinessWeek, April 10, 2006

Immigration: Google Makes Its Case by Peter Elstrom BusinessWeek, June 7, 2007

Hira: Visa Programs 'Need to Be Fixed' interview with Ron Hira IT Business Edge, May 24, 2007

H-1B Bump: Not Dead Yet by Larry Barrett CIO Insight, July 2, 2007

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