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To H-1B Or Not To H-1B?

Are we facing an IT shortage of crisis proportions, or systematically destroying a skilled and capable homegrown workforce?

Dave Lovelace laughs when you ask about the purported shortage of qualified IT workers. He has 35 years of senior-level IT experience under his belt, ranging from systems programming to systems engineering to business development. He's published a number of well-regarded books on storage technology, forged strategic alliances between multinational vendors, and negotiated multimillion-dollar contracts.

And, apparently, nobody needs his services.

Over the past 24 months, Lovelace has applied for hundreds of jobs in Silicon Valley, where he's based. It's rare he gets even a courtesy e-mail or call in return.

"I'm not just sending out resumés to every job posting, but only the ones I'm qualified for," said Lovelace, who just finished a book on storage migration for the SAP environment. "There's clearly no shortage of technology workers. If that were the case, I'd been getting dozens of calls every week, and salaries would be going through the roof. And that's just not happening."

Or listen to Sharon Adler's story. Adler, like many former IT professionals, has simply stopped looking for work. She earned her master's in computer science from California State University, Northridge, in 1988 with a 4.0 grade point average and spent the next 12 years as a member of the technical staff at Bell Labs developing software -- first Unix kernel code and then data visualization applications using object-oriented technology and C++. In 2000, Adler moved from California to New Hampshire to develop e-commerce applications for a startup, and after the dot-com crash, she developed text-messaging systems for an international telecommunications company. In 2002 the Netherlands-based company closed its U.S. development facility. Adler hasn't worked in IT since.

"I even tried making my resumé look less experienced, and I never mentioned my age," said Adler, adding that she applied for everything from entry-level positions to those that matched her actual level of expertise. While job hunting, she got certified in J2EE by taking a Sun-sponsored course. Nothing came of that. "Most of the people in the class had their master's degrees and decades of experience, yet were finding it difficult to get any response from employers advertising for IT workers," said Adler. "It was like sending our resumés into a black hole."

Countering claims that the United States is facing a critical shortage of skilled technologists, former IT professionals like Lovelace and Adler point to depressed wages and their inability to score even preliminary interviews as evidence that the market is already flooded. Yet at the same time, technology companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Oracle, asserting that their ability to function at full capacity is being hampered by the lack of qualified technologists, are furiously pressing Congress to allow more temporary high-tech workers into the country by raising the cap on how many H-1B temporary foreign worker visas are issued. Indeed, on the first day in April 2007 that H-1B petitions could be filed, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) was overwhelmed with more than 150,000 petitions from employers hoping to snag some of the 65,000 general visas available for fiscal 2008.

In June, Google VP of people operations Laszlo Bock pointed to those numbers as part of testimony meant to convince Congress that the H-1B cap should be raised. In a related blog post commenting on Bock's testimony, Pablo Chavez, Google's policy counsel, wrote that "over the last year alone, the artificially low cap on H-1B visas has prevented more than 70 Google candidates from receiving H-1B visas."

An April report by the American Electronics Association, an industry trade group, found that the U.S. technology industry increased the number of jobs by 150,000 in 2006 alone, and that there aren't enough U.S. workers to fill those jobs. According to the report, less than 3% of U.S. computer systems designers are out of work, and less than 2% of engineers are actively looking for jobs. And these numbers would look even better -- more jobs would have been created, unemployment would have sunk even further -- if U.S. firms could tap into the global labor market, according to William Archey, president and CEO at the AEA.

Indeed, the situation is so dire, according to technology companies, that the United States is in real danger of losing its ability to innovate. Paul Otellini, president and CEO of Intel, reiterated this in a report issued in mid-June by the Technology CEO Council that asserted the economic future of the U.S. tech industry is "intrinsically tied to the global economy. We can either embrace that and prosper, or shirk from it and lose our economic edge," Otellini said.

But opponents to raising the H-1B cap say the issue isn't a shortage of talent, but the desire for U.S. firms to recruit cheaper labor.

Although Adler said she can't tie her inability to get work specifically to employers' desire to hire less-expensive H-1B visa holders, "in my admittedly anecdotal experience, there's no shortage of qualified American IT professionals to warrant raising the H-1B cap," she said. Agreed Lovelace, "It's impossible to prove, but by talking to former colleagues, it seems clear that firms are hiring temporary foreign workers in large numbers while qualified American citizens are out of work."

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