Analysis: H-1B Pay Drags Down All Salaries

In the engineering profession, pay for foreigners on H-1B visas is up to 23% lower than that for American workers, according to an analysis by Electronic Engineering Times.

H-1B visas allow IBM to "tap into global sources of information," the spokesman said, echoing industry supporters of the H-1B visa program. Started in 1990, the program has polarized factions within the electronics industry. Employers say the visas allow them to hire needed talent; detractors say it puts U.S. citizens out of work, engenders fraud and promotes exploitation of immigrants.

"I work with those H-1Bs, and as far as I know they are getting half of what we get," said Shahid Sheikh, a senior software developer with TAC Worldwide in Jacksonville, Fla. "I get a normal salary. I get $80,000 a year. They get a maximum $40,000 a year." Sheikh, who worked under an H-1B visa when he emigrated from Bangladesh 12 years ago, said the program is "filled with fraud and cheating." He was naturalized about two years ago.

President Bush weighed in on H-1B visas in February, when he called the current annual limit of 65,000 visas a "problem" and urged Congress to "raise that cap." The U.S. Senate voted in March to increase the annual limit to 115,000 for fiscal 2007. The House hasn't taken up the issue. Employer applications for H-1Bs reached the fiscal 2006 cap of 65,000 last August, two months before the current fiscal year began on Oct. 1. Applications for fiscal 2007 have already maxed out the 65,000-visa allotment.

Current limits on H-1B visas essentially promote a nonimmigration policy for the United States and endanger the competitiveness of U.S. industry, said Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a think tank that "pursue[s] and promote[s] debate consistent with an American entrepreneurial spirit that is welcoming to new people, ideas and innovation," according to the group's Web site. "Except for a short window of time, no one can hire a new H-1B because the cap keeps getting hit before the experiment's even started," Anderson said.

Anderson said employers don't use H-1B visas to lower wages and decried the "myth" that each H-1B worker replaces a U.S. worker. Immigrants help create jobs and innovation, he said. Rather than preserving U.S. jobs, H-1B visa caps drive companies to expand overseas to preserve flexibility, in Anderson's view. "The more we continue current policy, the more this will happen," he said.

H-1B visas account for a fraction of the work forces of multinational employers like Intel and IBM. Less than 3 percent of Intel's employees hold H-1B visas, and more than 50 percent of its 99,000 workers worldwide are in the United States. IBM's total of 2,500 H-1Bs pales next to the company's 43,000 employees in India.

The number of H-1B visas issued for high-tech occupations is too few to affect the salaries of the larger U.S. labor force, according to Jeremy Leonard, chief economist at American Sentinel University. By 2004, a total of 139,000 H-1B visas were issued for information technology professionals, a broad classification that includes computer occupations and engineers. "In comparison, the U.S. IT labor force, using a relatively narrow definition, numbers about 3 million," Leonard said. In 2003, 12 percent of H-1B holders were in engineering occupations and 28 percent were in computer jobs, Leonard said.

While U.S. electronics industry employment levels and pay increases both trail boom-year levels (see "Jobs data spurs debate" in By the Numbers, June 12, page 30), H-1B visas are not to blame, Leonard said. BLS data shows a 23.3 percent increase in hardware engineering jobs from 2000 to 2005, and a 5.1 percent increase in electronics engineering jobs over that span. "So employment in these occupations certainly hasn't declined due to H-1B visas," he said.

Nigel Brent, president of Nigel B. Design Inc., an amplifier manufacturer based in California, said he's fed up with engineers complaining about immigrants taking American jobs. "This is so bogus," he said. "The truth is that people are lured to come here from many different countries with the promise of higher salaries, better lifestyle and standard of living than their home countries can provide."

The United States has grown strong with the constant influx of immigrants, said Brent, who emigrated from Britain almost 30 years ago and became a U.S. citizen in the 1980s. "The upside with the present H-1B system is that jobs stay in America. Every H-1B who comes here supports the economy with the food they buy, the cars they buy, the house they buy. I could go on with the many benefits that the trickle effects of being here bring to the economy."

Writing in the June 12 issue of the Financial Times, IBM chairman and chief executive officer Sam Palmisano said that a modern company must resist anti-globalization fervor and become a "globally integrated enterprise." The alternative is grim, he wrote. "Left unaddressed, the issues surrounding globalization will only grow. People may ultimately choose to elect governments that impose strict regulations on trade or labor, perhaps of a highly protectionist sort," said Palmisano.

NFAP's Anderson criticized what he called basic flaws in using LCA wage data as a stand-in for H-1B salaries. "One is that you're comparing the prevailing wage, basically the minimum an employer would have to pay others similarly employed at the firm," he said. Second, LCA minimums wouldn't approach average salaries of all U.S. professionals, some with decades of job experience, he said.

The tactic of presenting LCA wages as salaries was used in "The Bottom of the Pay Scale," a report on the salaries of computer programmers published last December by the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit research organization "animated by a . . . vision which seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted," according to the CIS Web site.

Professor Matloff rebuffed Anderson's criticism and raised questions about his objectivity. "He's a lobbyist," Matloff said.

Using LCA data to reflect salaries is sound methodology, Matloff said, because the data "tracks very well" with H-1B compensation data in an annual report published by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a bureau of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "I have confidence the LCA data is reliable," Matloff said. "And I'm a former statistics professor."

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