Down To Business: What If Major League Baseball Had H-1B Caps?
Employer demand for foreign workers isn't just a function of greed, even if the system is far from perfect.
As of opening day, 28% of Major League Baseball players were born outside the United States, representing 15 countries and territories. Put another way, more than a quarter of ultra-high-paying U.S. baseball jobs go to foreigners--yet there's barely a complaint from displaced American players or the American fan base.
Why isn't MLB subjected to the same populist ridicule leveled at tech and other U.S. employers that hire foreign workers? Aren't the Cardinals, Mets, and Mariners giving away "our jobs," shutting out thousands of competent U.S.-born athletes?
One difference is that in pro baseball, myriad statistics ultimately define who gets hired and promoted and who doesn't make the cut. Based on the numbers, there's no denying that the likes of Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki have earned their place in the big leagues. And for the most part, teams are left to hire the players they deem to be the most productive, regardless of national origin.
It's different in IT. Employers who hire or contract noncitizens are blasted as greedy or un-American. There's no Elias Sports Bureau tracking the productivity of programmers, network architects, database administrators, and other IT pros, so those who want to undermine foreign workers slap them with stereotypes--they're closed-minded, uncommitted, uncommunicative. Or their employment is "unfair" to American workers.
For instance, critics argue that U.S. tech employers are just trying to flood the market with cheap labor. Ron Hira, an assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and a thoughtful critic of the H-1B visa program, says government data shows that median salaries for H-1B IT workers, including many with master's degrees and years of experience, are comparable to salaries of entry-level U.S. workers with only a bachelor's degree. So H-1B tech workers are effectively cheaper, Hira argues, violating the thrust of the program, whose goal is to help employers tap scarce skills, not drive down salaries.
But the evidence on H-1B worker pay isn't clear cut. A recent analysis by two University of Maryland researchers maintains that noncitizen IT pros actually earn 5% to 9% more than American workers with similar education and experience. And if U.S. employer interest in H-1B pros were merely a cost-cutting ploy and not a function of need, you'd expect demand for those pros to stay about the same (or even increase) in a recession. But since it started accepting H-1B petitions from employers on April 1, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has received about 45,000, well short of the 65,000 annual cap. Last year, in a stronger economy, the cap was hit within days.
Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, have reintroduced a bill that would require U.S. employers to give preference to Americans and bar employers from replacing Americans with H-1B holders. Imagine if MLB teams were held to the same standard. It would become a second-rate league in no time.
Not that foreign tech workers are the be-all and end-all. I tend to agree with Gen. Colin Powell, who recently told me: "Make sure you do everything you can to hire qualified Americans for the jobs, but... some of the best technical abilities rest in other countries and we cannot afford to deny ourselves that opportunity. So let's have a sensible H-1B visa process that brings in what we need and gives them a chance for citizenship. It enriches our country and economy."