Valuable H-1B Workers Alberta-Bound As Congress Fiddles - InformationWeek

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Commentary
7/23/2008
11:42 AM
Paul McDougall
Paul McDougall
Commentary
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Valuable H-1B Workers Alberta-Bound As Congress Fiddles

Lawmakers in the Canadian province of Alberta are cashing in on the United States' failure to enact a rational immigration policy for skilled workers -- they're recruiting H-1B visa holders whose permits are about to expire.

Lawmakers in the Canadian province of Alberta are cashing in on the United States' failure to enact a rational immigration policy for skilled workers -- they're recruiting H-1B visa holders whose permits are about to expire.Alberta over the past few years has enjoyed one of the highest economic growth rates in the Western world, thanks mostly to soaring energy prices that have made it enormously profitable to extract oil from the province's mucky tar sands.

Northern Alberta is seeing its own version of the California gold rush or the Alaska oil boom. Thousands of workers from across Canada and around the world are flocking, wide-eyed, to the tiny, northern town of Fort McMurray to sign up for six-figure jobs at the nearby oil sands.

The influx is such that studio apartments in the spartan, frontier outpost are now renting at Manhattan prices.

Despite this, estimates show that Alberta will need tens of thousands of more workers -- skilled and unskilled -- in the coming years to keep things humming. In one week alone in 2006, $38 billion in new Alberta oil sands investments were announced by international petro-giants like Royal Dutch Shell.

Faced with a labor shortage, Alberta officials are looking to the United States -- where each year thousands of foreign technologists are forced to leave after using up the allotted six years on their H-1B visas. Under an Alberta pilot program, U.S. H-1B holders are now eligible for immediate, permanent residency in the province and, by extension, the rest of Canada.

To qualify, the visa holders must work in a profession in which Alberta foresees a labor crunch. The list includes computer and information systems engineers and managers.

"Alberta has the strongest and fastest growing economy in Canada, giving you the security and stability you've been searching for," reads a government Web site targeted toward U.S. H-1B workers. "The air is clean, the sky is blue, and the people are as friendly as you've heard," the site boasts.

Contrast that with the message that the U.S., facing its own shortage of tech workers according to no less an authority than Bill Gates, implicitly sends to H-1B workers: "Thanks for the six years; now get out!"

That's because U.S. immigration rules offer no direct path from skilled, temporary worker status to permanent resident. An H-1B visa is good for three years, and can be renewed only once. And putting in six years on an H-1B offers no automatic route to a green card.

For many, it's back to Bangalore or elsewhere after more than half a decade gaining experience amid the computer industry's best and brightest in Silicon Valley. The upshot: Experienced IT pros with world-class training and education are leaving the country in droves at the very time when the U.S. needs more of them to remain globally competitive.

Meanwhile, Congress, including lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, tosses around so-called immigration "reform" packages that would give clemency to tens of thousands of lawbreakers who entered or stayed here illegally -- many of whom are violent felons, while countless others are completely bereft of skills or even basic familiarity with English -- while doing nothing to help talented professionals remain in the country.

Is it any wonder that Microsoft recently opened new offices not in Washington state, but an hour north of the border in Vancouver?

Here's what Congress should do to right this ridiculous situation. H-1B workers who have been employed productively in the U.S. for six consecutive years, and who have broken no laws, should be eligible to become permanent residents. Period.

Otherwise, U.S. tech giants like Microsoft, IBM, and HP, unable to retain the talent they need, will continue to send more work up north or overseas. And other countries will be more than happy to welcome immigrant workers trained at American expense. "You'll never have to worry about your visa expiring again," says Alberta's Web site.

The United States, meanwhile, in effect becomes a net exporter of IT pros, scientists and engineers -- and a net importer of busboys.

Alberta bound, anyone?

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