Bill Gates will be in Washington to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United States House Committee on Science and Technology on March 12. It is expected that he will deliver a speech on education reform. It is also expected that he will discuss immigration -- specifically H-1B visas.
It's not that the committee has jurisdiction over immigration, but for Gates there's an inextricable link between U.S. technology competitiveness and the country's policies on foreign workers. Gates has consistently pressed Congress to increase the cap on so-called H-1B visas, which are issued to skilled workers from foreign countries. Easing the restrictions, say Gates and his counterparts at other leading tech companies, including Cisco Systems, would provide a bigger pool of would-be workers.
Currently, the government issues 65,000 of the visas each year, a number many companies argue is so low they can't hire enough worldwide talent. Microsoft says the cap prevented roughly 300 job candidates last year from taking posts at its Redmond (Wash.) headquarters. Opponents say lifting the cap would take jobs from U.S. workers.
It seems that everyone has an opinion on the H-1B issue. To keep the debate simple, it seems to boil down to this. Business says that there is a shortage of skilled Americans for certain jobs and that they must therefore look beyond the border to fill the gap. Americans say that H-1B visas go to people in jobs that could indeed be filled by Americans. While there have been multiple studies done on the issue, it seems that the results are based on who funded the study.
Another question to consider is where the visas are going. Last year, the number of requests far exceeded the number of visas available, closing submissions in just two days. But who were the winners?
Indian offshore outsourcing firm Infosys Technologies Ltd. received 4,559 H-1B visas in fiscal 2007, the largest number received by any company, according to the latest figures of "initial beneficiaries" from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. But this new list from USCIS also shows that H-1B use has spread far and wide. It includes more than 29,000 H-1B recipients, both private companies and institutions, such as universities, some of which are exempt from the 65,000 visa cap. Nearly 20,000 of the companies and institutions listed received only one H-1B visa in fiscal 2007. For that fiscal year, India-based offshore outsourcing companies continued to dominate the top 10 H-1B recipients, with the exception of Microsoft Corp., Intel Corp. and Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp., which runs major offshore operations.
If the goal of the H-1B visa is to provide access to permanent candidates with specific skill sets, why is a contract house leading the list of visa grants? Or is the intent that while the H-1B worker is in place, the company is intended to be growing a candidate already in house to take over the work by the end of the H-1B's time? If that is the case, why would Microsoft or Intel be on the list of grants? To put it simply, is the program intended to provide a skilled worker for a short period, or is it intended to permanently fill a role? These are questions that Senators Chuck Grassley and Richard Durbin would like answered.
Critics such as Grassley and Durbin charge that the outsourcers are abusing the U.S. program. The work visas, they say, are supposed to be used to bolster the U.S. economy. The idea is that companies like Microsoft, Google, or IBM can use them to hire software programmers or computer scientists with rare skills, fostering innovation and improving competitiveness. Instead, critics say, companies such as Infosys and Wipro are undermining the American economy by wiping out jobs. The companies bring low-cost workers to the U.S., train them in the offices of U.S. clients, and then rotate them back home after a year or two so they can provide tech support and other services from abroad. "Valuable high-tech jobs are on a one-way superhighway overseas," said Durbin in an e-mail.
Microsoft's answer to its need for more H-1B workers than it could secure visas for was to open an outpost in Richmond, B.C. Canada has less restrictive immigration laws, and Richmond is in the same time zone as Redmond. This arrangement allows people at the Richmond campus to work in sync with their Redmond counterparts.
This continues to be a hot topic, and it is doubtful that anything will be done to change the current status. After all, it's an election year. But look for the debate to continue in 2009.
The H-1B program and outsourcing in general has impacted people in the tech industry in one way or another. Share your experience. Does your company have H-1B workers? Are you an H-1B worker?
Senator describes black market in H-1B visas (Computerworld)