The H-1B Visa Debate

Recent debates on the controversial issues of H-1B visas culminated, for the time, with President Clinton's signing of legislation to increase the number of high-tech-oriented H-1B visas given out yearly to skilled foreign workers.

by / November 30, 2000
"In the early years of education, the emphasis on math and science seems to be the same in both countries. But maybe in the United States, the emphasis on the practical side is a bit more." -- Harpreet Singh Ahuliawalia

Proponents say the bill is necessary because the number of U.S. citizens qualified or willing to accept such jobs is dangerously low and will remain so until Americans are properly trained in math and science. In the meantime, those unfilled jobs may have to be shipped overseas.

Opponents say there is no shortage of skilled high-tech workers in the U.S. and that the visas discourage American youth from entering the field and discriminate against older workers.

A second bill, which raises the application fee for the visas, was also passed. The revenue generated from the fee hike will be used for worker education initiatives aimed at teaching U.S. citizens the skills they need to compete for technology-related jobs.

We talked to four professionals on the front lines to find out what they think about the visas, how the visas work, if they are necessary and why.

Jenny Verderi "The United States wants skilled professionals. They produce the best software and they are short of skilled professionals."

"In the United States, the job opportunities are more compared to India because India is very over-populated."

-- Akshat Goyal

Jenny Verderi is manager of education and workforce policy at Intel.

"Certainly for the continued growth of productivity for high-tech companies like Intel that are relying on a highly skilled workforce, it's very important. We are not able to find enough qualified U.S. workers in certain disciplines year after year, particularly in the science and engineering areas."

"You can look at generic, even aggregated data that the government publishes, and they say that the number of jobs exceed the number of available qualified workers, now and for the next short term. If you look at it from a micro level, like at our own hiring and recruiting efforts, there has been a shortage in the areas that we hire at for quite some time -- and that's primarily master's and Ph.D. design engineers."

"Kids don't go into [math and science] ... the reason that kids don't go into math and science is not because we're bringing in foreign nationals to take jobs that are master's and Ph.D. level. Some of the reasons kids are not going into these fields, and we can't know all of them, are that they are very difficult. Teachers are not qualified to teach these disciplines at the K-12 level; and kids don't understand what kinds of jobs they can go into so there is a barrier there. Even if they have the capabilities to stay in math and science, they don't have the incentive because they are unsure of what kinds of jobs lay on the horizon."


Harris Miller

Harris Miller is the president of the Information Technology Association of America.

"The annual ceiling has simply been too low the last few years, particularly when the economy has been as strong as it is and unemployment has been as low as it is. Increasing the cap on an annual basis to 195,000 is extremely helpful. It's also helpful in that the fees that the employers will have to pay as part of this new bill will total close to $200 million a year to be used primarily for training and educating American workers. So it's really a win-win because it will increase the number of skilled foreign workers coming in to help address the current shortage of IT workers in the United States, plus it [will increase] training dollars, not paid for by the government but by the employer, for training more U.S. workers for the New Economy."
"Any time you have a revolution in the economy, there's going to be discontinuity. In the information economy, it takes months, often years, to be trained properly. The education and training system[s] haven't caught up yet. Eventually they will, but it's going to take many years, because you don't produce hundreds of thousands of people with the appropriate computer skills overnight. Even though many more people want to be part of this New Economy, it takes time for them to get the math and science skills and the specific educational training they need to be part of this IT workforce."

Norm Matloff

Norm Matloff is a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis.

"The vast majority of high-tech H-1Bs are computer programmers. We do not have a shortage of programmers. Employers in this field -- large ones, small ones, anywhere in the country -- hire only two percent of their applicants. If there were a "desperate" shortage, they could not be so picky."

"Wages for programmers are rising only moderately, and at about the same rate as other professions. For example, starting salaries for new computer science graduates have risen only four percent per year since 1995. This is about the same rate (actually slightly less) than for graduates in sales/marketing, accounting, etc. If employers were desperate to hire, they would be willing to pay a premium of more than four percent to get someone."

"The industry lobbyists point to low unemployment rates among programmers. Those are meaningless, because older programmers who can't find programming jobs leave the field and thus don't show up in programmer unemployment data."

"Programming careers are especially short-lived. Twenty years after graduation, only 19 percent of computer science graduates are still in the programming field, compared to 52 percent of civil engineering graduates still in their field. Employers prefer hiring a young H-1B (median age 28) to an older (say age 40) American programmer. Without the foreign labor pool to rely on, the employers would be forced to pay more attention to the older Americans."

By Jim McKay
Jim McKay Contributing Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout.

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