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Time For Congress To Enforce 'Prevailing Wage' H-1B

A great idea hit me after reading George Will's column last Friday, lamenting our "shortage" of qualified high-tech workers. Sadly, Will sidestepped the controversial issue of whether foreign nationals undercut U.S. engineers by working for less under the H-1B visa program. So why not enforce domestic pay levels for these folks, and lift the current annual cap of 140,000 H-1B green cards? Under my

A great idea hit me after reading George Will's column last Friday, lamenting our "shortage" of qualified high-tech workers. Sadly, Will sidestepped the controversial issue of whether foreign nationals undercut U.S. engineers by working for less under the H-1B visa program. So why not enforce domestic pay levels for these folks, and lift the current annual cap of 140,000 H-1B green cards? Under my plan, everybody would be happy.Here's the problem, though. The law already mandates that H-1B workers be paid at the prevailing wage for U.S. citizens. The Heritage Foundation think-tank says that this is indeed occurring, that H-1B tech salaries are comparable to those of U.S.-born workers. (If this is truly the case, then why are there any H-1B caps?) However, 25 years of anecdotal experience tells me -- and many engineers I know -- differently.

My argument is that, if we lifted and H-1B cap and truly enforced the comparable-pay provision, we'd see if there really is a shortage of qualified tech personnel, or if this is just a complaint manufactured by companies looking for trained people willing to work for cut-rate salaries. (The sad part is, anecdotal evidence indicates that many American engineers thrown overboard during the post-bubble period would be willing to come back for less, but that's not how the employment game is played.)

The problem in setting forth an argument like mine is that you get everyone mad at you. Business owners really believe there are no trained people out there, and you can't tell them otherwise.

The reality is, there are thousands of perfectly capable, albeit unemployed, IT workers out there. (Many of the post-bubble layoffees have by now left the field entirely.) Try this quick thought experiment: Has the nation that invented the long playing record, the laser, the semiconductor, and the integrated circuit suddenly become a country of doofuses in the space of two generations? Not really plausible, is it?

The truth is, at any one time there are never a whole lot of kids who can do calculus or hack a sci/tech major in college. If there's a currently a shortage of entry-level tech grads, that'd be because kids have wised up and are less inclined nowadays to enter a field where your present for years of hard work is a pink slip 'round about the time your children are entering college.

As for the imagined shortage of experienced IT people, that's only because employers are too dense to comprehend that a techie who's accumulated 20 years of solid experience need not have spent the last six months doing some skill du jour (be it Java, C#, J2EE, or whatever) to be capable of picking it up, post haste. But, hey, that horse left the barn ages ago.

OK, I'm belaboring a point that seems pretty obvious to me. But when Bill Gates goes before Congress and states that there's an acute shortage of scientists and engineers, these are some of the reasons why.

Looking at it from the opposite angle, from the perspective of engineers and IT workers, their complaints are typically that outsourcing has killed their profession. Well, welcome to the modern world. Outsourcing is a part of the global economy, and it isn't going away. Indeed, if you have half a brain, you realize that, if you are employed, the surest way to lose that job is to make a big stink about this new reality, because the chances are 99.44% positive that your company is using outsourced tech help, too.

In his column, Will wisely avoids both the shortage question and outsourcing. Instead, he takes a reasonable melting-pot stance that it makes no sense for the United States to become a kind of educational pit stop for foreign tech workers. Will submits that we're screwing ourselves by training foreign nationals at our top engineering schools and then letting them return to their home countries because they're not authorized to work here. On the face of it, he's correct.

This is where my plan comes in. It would completely eliminate the torturous annual debate over the Congressional H-1B visa limit, which currently stands at around 140,000. I'd lift the limit entirely on a on H-1B workers paid a real and true "prevailing wage." There'd be no need for a cap, because the "prevailing wage" H-1B wouldn't undercut any existing salaried positions.

The real beauty of my idea is that it's truly a free-market solution. It lets the market set H-1B salaries, by removing the artificial restrictions that have tied foreign green-card holders to their sponsoring companies.

Note that my plan does not impact outsourcing at all, which could continue unimpeded. I'm actually proposing a method for Silicon Valley to increase its access to domestically based hardware and software talent. All they gotta do is open their wallets for less bucks than it'll cost pretty soon for a round-trip ticket to the typical H-1B's home country.

[UPDATE: This post was updated to clarify the fact that the H-1B program already mandates paying a prevailing wage. My belief is that this isn't as widely adhered to as the stats claim. As a colleague of mine e-mailed me: "Actually, a lot of people don't know there's a wage requirement, it's something the anti-H-1B people don't talk about because it undercuts their argument." Me, I'm not so sure that's because it undercuts the argument; it could be 'cause it's so rarely seen in the real world.]

What do you think?

Also, read my post from January 2007, in which I railed against Thomas Friedman's know-nothing take on the "mounting crisis in science and engineering education," in Google Pitch For Lifting H-1B Visa Limits Heralds 'In-Sourcing' Surge.

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