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To H-1B Or Not To H-1B? 3

Are we facing an IT shortage of crisis proportions, or systematically destroying a skilled and capable homegrown workforce?
The technology industry points to the fact that fewer Americans are enrolling in technology programs at the university level, and that increasingly large percentages of those emerging from graduate programs are foreign born as further evidence that more H-1B visas are needed. Indeed, almost 60% of engineering Ph.D. degrees awarded annually are currently earned by foreign nationals, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. Yet this could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Due to both outsourcing and insourcing, many young people are concluding that technology is a bad place to invest their time," said Mark Thoma, a professor of economics at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

It's not surprising that American kids are reluctant to pursue IT careers, said Sullivan, who teaches IT management classes at Oakland College. "It's a really tough sell. The salaries aren't there anymore, and there are a lot fewer students enrolling." Sullivan used to give an opening spiel extolling the virtues of an IT career. "I've modified it significantly to explain what's happening, and how we're under fire," he says.

And some say even the advanced degrees don't help. After all, Adler had a master's in computer science. And as Ron Krollman found out after he headed back to school to get a master's degree when his career seemed to run out of steam in 2002, an advanced degree isn't a sure ticket to success. 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 firms until he got caught in a wave of layoffs in February 2002.

While in graduate school, Krollman worked various contract jobs side by side with H-1B visa holders fresh out of graduate school themselves, and he was shocked by what they 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 said. Today Krollman spends his time scouring job boards and sending out his resume, but he's disheartened by the lack of response.

At this point, the only thing that the two sides of the debate agree upon is that the H-1B system is broken. But solutions for fixing it are all over the map.

A new immigration reform amendment being proposed by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, could make it a lot tougher for companies to plan mass layoffs of U.S. workers if those companies have also hired foreign workers on H-1Bs. Called the Sanders-Grassley Amendment, this would require U.S. companies to certify to the Department of Labor that they haven't had any mass layoffs of American workers in the previous 12 months before they could file LCAs to hire any new foreign workers. The amendment would define mass layoffs as the dismissal of 50 or more U.S. workers by companies with more than 100 employees.

At a minimum, all participating employers should be required to make good-faith efforts to recruit U.S. workers, and to use the H-1B program to augment rather than replace the American workforce, said Chris McManes, senior public relations coordinator at the IEEE-USA.

The tech industry, on the other hand, is pushing to increase the number of H-1B visas issued to at least 115,000, and to streamline green-card processes so those workers could more easily become permanent residents. These proposals are part of the Senate's recent comprehensive immigration reform bill that, despite strong support from President Bush, has stalled.

Many of the people critical of the current H-1B program advocate curtailing it significantly, or doing away with it altogether, in favor of a plan that puts qualified foreign technology workers on a fast track for permanent residency without tying sponsorship to a particular employer. This would eliminate the possibility of exploitation of the visa holder, while making it more likely that wages would be competitive.

"Skilled immigrants have the potential to contribute to the economy, create jobs, and allow us to innovate," said 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."

This, ultimately, is what IT professionals like Sullivan want. "If we get a more level-playing field, then everyone -- U.S. workers as well as H-1B holders -- will be much happier," he said.