To H-1B Or Not To H-1B? 2

While tech execs see an IT talent crisis, U.S. workers see an industry systematically destroying a skilled and capable homegrown workforce.
Vivek Wadhwa, an executive-in-residence at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering, is skeptical that there's much of a tech labor shortage. Wadhwa has been studying how many American engineers are graduating each year, compared with the numbers in China, India, and other countries. He also surveyed employers to see how long it's taking to fill open engineering positions with U.S. workers. His conclusion: Although other countries, particularly China, are surging ahead of the United States in graduating engineers with advanced degrees--and that trend should be taken very seriously--there's no indication of a shortage of engineers in the States. "The H-1B program is deeply flawed," Wadhwa says. "It's lose-lose for the U.S. economy and for the technology profession, and lose-lose for the H-1B workers themselves."

Bob Hannah, a 56-year-old network administrator in Bettendorf, Iowa, was let go from his longtime job at a Midwestern bank after it was acquired by a larger financial institution. Out of work for more than a year, he has applied for more than 100 jobs, but he rarely gets a call or e-mail back. "Even if I did, none of the salaries touch what I was making at the bank," Hannah says. He's working as a part-time contractor repairing Dell computers.

Back in the 1990s, working as a Y2K consultant in Chicago, Hannah remembers feeling bad for the H-1B workers brought in because they were considerably cheaper than Americans. "They were incredibly nice people and hard workers, and deserved better," he says. Today, he's more worried about the impact on U.S. workers: "Back then, there was plenty of work to go around. Now there isn't."

There's no doubt the global competition for IT work has ramped up in recent years--much more, and much higher-level work, is being done abroad for U.S. companies. That will continue, with or without H-1B visas. The painful struggle comes as the United States tries to figure out how to adapt to that reality--on individual career levels and on a policy level.

For individuals, education and retraining aren't always the answer. Adler has a master's in computer science. Ron Krollman had similar experience, after heading back to school to get a master's degree when his career seemed to run out of steam in 2002. A 41-year-old networking hardware engineer from Geneva, Ill., he graduated from the University of Illinois in Chicago with a degree in electrical engineering in 1989 and racked up considerable experience through long-term positions at two major Chicago technology companies until he got laid off in February 2002.

While in graduate school, Krollman worked various contract jobs and says he was shocked by what the H-1B visa holders fresh out of graduate school themselves, working side by side with him, were getting paid. "I'm seeing H-1B Ph.D.s working for less in 2007 than what I earned with a bachelor's degree back in 2002," he says. Krollman spends his time scouring job boards and sending out his resum' but hasn't found full-time IT work.

H-1B critics were encouraged by a number of reform proposals offered this year, and they hold out hope that some will pass even without a comprehensive immigration reform effort. One by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, would have made it tougher to replace U.S. workers en masse with foreign workers on H-1Bs, since companies would need to certify that they haven't had any mass layoffs the previous 12 months before hiring new foreign workers. Other proposals would have required posting jobs for H-1B recipients on a Department of Labor job board.

Many of the people critical of the current H-1B program advocate curtailing it significantly in favor of a plan that puts qualified foreign technology workers on a faster track for permanent residency, without tying sponsorship to a particular employer. This would make it harder for employers to exploit visa holders by offering noncompetitive wages, while recognizing that the country needs immigrants to grow.

"Skilled immigrants have the potential to contribute to the economy, create jobs, and allow us to innovate," says Duke University's Wadhwa. "If we really need more technology workers, we should be more discriminating about how many we let in, and make the ones we do admit truly welcome."

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The Myths And Facts Driving The H-1B Debate

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