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In Depth: Why We Need The H-1B

The U.S. IT industry needs a free flow of talent--probably more free than we have. That'll take addressing the abuse, fear, and retraining problems that stand in the way.
Staffing firm Hudson employs about 80 H-1B tech workers for a range of jobs, including consultants with expertise in CRM, ERP, middleware, and Web development. It mostly hires H-1B workers already in the United States by applying for visa transfers, since the cap makes it difficult to obtain new H-1B workers from overseas, and processing fees and legal costs are expensive. Hudson looks for CRM deployment and other "domain knowledge," says Sonia Seth, director of recruitment for People.com, a division of Hudson. Seth, an Indian national, has been in the country for six years with an H-1B visa and awaits her green card.

Lower cost is one of the attractions of using H-1B workers, Seth says, especially for skills that are hard to find. "Finding experienced people is getting more difficult. You pay the price," she says. While an experienced American CRM consultant might fetch $110 per hour, a similarly experienced consultant with an H-1B visa is paid only $70 per hour, she says. But depending on experience level, Seth adds, some H-1B workers can be more expensive than their domestic counterparts.

Whatever Happened to Training?

While tech vendors may have difficulty finding specialized people with advanced degrees, many companies don't have to look outside the country for talent. There are plenty of people here, especially if a company is willing to train. Amanda Poor, manager of application development at a large multinational company, is looking to fill a junior Visual Basic developer position in her group, which has about dozen people. "A few years ago, I'd have to throw out 90% of the resumés we received," she says. Now, at least half of the resumés are from qualified applicants, and they run the gamut from mainframe pros looking for a change to recent grads from nearby Virginia Tech. "You try to bring in someone at a junior level and train them, and if they hang around three or four years, they become very valuable," Poor says.

Not all IT managers think the way Poor does. One of the strongest arguments against raising the H-1B cap is that it gives companies an excuse not to develop and train their staff. IT pros, more so than most other professionals, must constantly develop their skills and often are expected to do it on their own dime and time.

"There's age bias and great pressure to keep up IT skills," says Rick Flaviano, manager of information systems at Dofasco Tubular Products, a maker of steel tube products. "If you spend 20 years in accounting, you're supervaluable. Debits and credits haven't changed." Companies that hire H-1B workers should be required not only to recruit American workers first, but also to conduct training programs for their staffs to fill those openings, he says.

In fact, when Congress raised the H-1B visa cap in 1998, it also raised the processing fees, creating a training fund for American workers. Companies have paid about $1 billion into that fund, which has financed National Science Foundation scholarships for about 40,000 students and training programs for more than 82,000 working professionals, the Department of Labor says.

Rick Black, a senior systems analyst for utility company Scana, which employs a number of H-1B visa holders from India, lives on both sides of the issue. "By letting these workers into the U.S., they keep the money here, with lodging, transportation, living expenses," says Black, a 25-year IT veteran. "By increasing the number of visas, more of the money actually stays in the U.S., and it's better for the economy."

But Black, who holds an MBA, also understands that it's critical for IT pros to constantly improve their skills. "My MBA has helped me to get different jobs and avoid being laid off," he says. "You can't stay put; you have to keep up." That could be part of the reason some unemployed IT workers still are finding it difficult to land jobs, he says.

As the nation continues to debate immigration and visa issues, there's an unsettling reality bubbling below the surface that could impact U.S. tech competitiveness: Not every highly skilled techie overseas considers the United States the best place to work.

"The tech industry is booming in Taiwan," says database manager Huang. "Most people there don't want to come to the U.S. because there are plenty of good opportunities in Taiwan." The upshot: If the United States doesn't make it easier to welcome brilliant minds into the country, while also making a more serious attempt to produce its own crop of new talent, then the next big harvest of technology innovation--and ultimately jobs--may be reaped elsewhere.

Continue to the sidebars:
Profile: H-1B Worker Tells About Risks,
Where An H-1B Visa Holder Comes From Matters
and Profile: One H-1B Visa Holder's Quest For A Green Card