| SAN FRANCISCO, April 10
SAN FRANCISCO, April 10 As the wrangling over
immigration reform intensifies in the U.S. Congress, the tech
industry is lobbying hard to raise the limit on H-1B visas,
which allow non-U.S. citizens with advanced skills and degrees
in "specialty occupations" to work in the country for up to six
Demand is so great that the annual cap of 65,000 was hit
last week, just days after the application period opened.
Technology companies support raising the H-1B quota almost
five-fold, to 300,000, arguing universities are just not turning
out enough American math and science graduates and they need to
cast their net abroad to stay competitive.
Yet some U.S. tech workers and academics say that the
shortage of talent is exaggerated, that many of the jobs could
go to out-of-work computer professionals in the United States,
and that the program serves mainly as a source of cheap labor.
The 200,000-member U.S. chapter of the Institute of
Electrical and Electronics Engineers rejects the claim of a
broad shortage of tech workers and opposes more H-1Bs.
"What these companies are doing is to replace Americans with
lower-cost foreign workers," says Russ Harrison, senior
legislative representative at the IEEE.
Rather than more H-1B visas, the group favors giving foreign
workers permanent residency, which Harrison said would help
boost wages and increase job mobility for newcomers.
In Silicon Valley, stories of ferocious competition for
engineering workers and a lack of qualified job-seekers abound.
Tech companies point to an unemployment rate of around 3.5
percent for those with advanced computer and math experience,
less than half the national rate, though in line with other
But wages in the tech industry are rising more slowly than
those in the economy as a whole. For example, pay for
applications software developers, a specialty in high
demand, have risen just 8.9 percent in the five years through
mid-2012, compared with a 12.5 percent increase for all
occupations in the U.S. economy.
"It is extraordinarily unlikely for a severe shortage to
happen in a way that doesn't result in very large wage
increases," said Kirk Doran, an economist at the University of
Notre Dame who studies immigration and labor.
"We know what a labor shortage looks like: there should be
both much lower unemployment than other professions and much
higher wage growth. If either of these are not present, then I
don't buy the shortage hypothesis."
Others say that when industries grow fast, wage growth can
be stifled because of an influx of relatively inexperienced and
"Even if you look at data from one year to the next, it may
not tell you what you think," said Stuart Anderson, executive
director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a think
tank backed by the pro-entrepreneurship Kauffman Foundation and
others. He says sub-industries sometimes move from one category
to another one, and that industries are growing more
specialized, complicating the data.
I SPY ... A VISA
The United States issued 129,000 H-1B visas last year -
almost double the official cap, since workers at universities
and some other workplaces don't count toward the limit. Those
with graduate degrees from U.S. universities have their own
quota of 20,000, a limit the tech industry hopes to see removed.
The three-year visas can be extended to six years, so there
are likely hundreds of thousands of H-1B workers, half of them
in computer-related fields, according to government data. There
is no exact count of H-1Bs in use at any given time.
Companies hiring H-1B workers are required by the Department
of Labor to pay either the prevailing local wage for the job or
the wage that would be paid someone with equivalent
qualifications, whichever is higher.
But critics of the program say these rules give employers
too much latitude to discriminate, for example, by age. Tech
companies recruit heavily at U.S. universities, where many
science and engineering students are foreign nationals. Younger
and less experienced workers generally receive less pay.
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,
a division of Homeland Security, 90 percent of all H-1B holders
are 39 or younger.
Bea Dewing, 61, a database designer, blames growing
competition from immigrant workers for hampering her career over
the past decade.
"It's very unfair from the standpoint of American workers,"
said Dewing, who has been out of steady work since August, when
she said she was laid off from Tata Consultancy Services
, an Indian software services firm which had placed her
at a New York-based financial services company.
Tata declined to comment on specific employees but said, "As
a matter of corporate policy, TCS does not lay off its employees
in order to replace them with H-1B visa holders."
The IEEE and others who see flaws in the H-1B program say
they are outgunned politically on the issue.
Computer and Internet companies spent an estimated $132.5
million on lobbying last year, according to the Center for
Responsive Politics. Tech executives including Cisco Systems Inc
Chief Executive John Chambers and venture capitalist
John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers flew to
Washington last month to discuss immigration reform
with the White House and Congressional leaders.
"Most of our members aren't really rabble rousers," said the
IEEE's Harrison, who urges members to call their
representatives, armed with facts about how many H-1B workers
are in their state, to stop any increase in H-1B visa quotas.
"We are constrained by the personality of our members."
For some Silicon Valley executives, the issue is larger than
filling vacant jobs. To compete in a global economy, they argue,
the United States needs all the talent it can find, and the fact
that its preeminent universities draw the best and brightest
students from all over the world is a competitive advantage that
should not be squandered.
Especially in a small start-up, they say, more than
expertise is required: The right fit is critical.
"When you're creating something from scratch you need
somebody outstanding," said Nathan Blecharczyk, co-founder of
the red-hot short-term rental company Airbnb.
The firm currently has only two engineers working
on its search capability, he explained - a critical function
that could be improved if he could find just the right caliber
"There isn't enough of the talent that we need to basically
create this business in the U.S.," he said. "We do need to look
globally for that talent."
Michael Moritz, a partner at Sequoia Capital, concurs.
"The rare individual is so often capable of doing the work
of several other people, in engineering like other creative art
forms," he says. "Barriers to hiring slow down everything."
Joe Golden, a former software developer at Microsoft Corp
who is studying the effects of immigration in the tech
industry as a graduate student in economics at the University of
Michigan, is also a proponent of opening the doors further to
But he says that as long as companies are free to headhunt
employees from rivals and woo qualified professionals from other
industries, it's difficult to say shortages exist.
"If companies want more workers they can all raise wages and
attract more people," Golden said.