Tech & Work

Sanity check: Is the U.S. shooting itself in the foot by limiting H1B visas?

H1B Visas are politically unpopular because they allow foreign workers to fill highly-skilled jobs in the U.S., but the truth is that they can actually help the U.S. economy. And, limiting H1Bs could could cost the U.S. its leadership in tech.

H1B visas are politically unpopular because they allow foreign workers to fill highly-skilled jobs in the U.S., but the truth is that they can actually help the U.S. economy. And, limiting H1Bs could could cost the U.S. its leadership in tech.

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I've heard lots of IT professionals whine about the H1B visa program and claim that it takes jobs away from U.S. workers. Unfortunately, that opinion represents a misunderstanding of the dynamics of H1Bs. It also contradicts the tradition that has made America a magnet for some of the most talented and innovative people on earth. It's a tradition that has been on display in its full glory over the past week at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, and that gives us the perfect opportunity to talk about whether the U.S. can use that tradition to remain a technology champion in the decades ahead.

The Olympic example

Before we dig into the H1B visa program, let's talk about the overriding principle involved here. One of the ideals that has distinguished the U.S. from its inception is the concept that a person's individual success and destiny should be tied to their own merits — e.g. talent, work ethic, and character — rather than their birthright, lineage, ethnicity, or other connections to the past. It's the ultimate "What have you done for me lately" philosophy of self-determination.

While the U.S. still has plenty of progress to make in bringing this to ideal to reality on its own shores, the fact that this is one of its core ideals is enough to distinguish it —  even though the idea has definitely spread and been adopted by others over the past century.

The success of this philosophy has been as evident as ever at the Olympic Games this summer in Beijing, China. While the Olympic teams of most nations are very ethnically homogeneous, the U.S. team is made up of athletes from across the planet — drawing on citizens descending from Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and more.

In the Beijing Games in particular, it has been fascinating to see the number of former Olympic champions from other countries who left to come to the United States to set up shop as coaches. Some of the most successful U.S. programs are now run by foreign nationals. This Olympics has also featured a number of international athletes born in other countries who are now U.S. citizens competing as Americans in the games, including several gold medalists such as Nastia Liukin, the individual all-around champion in gymnastics.

Simply put, the U.S. remains a hot spot for the world's most talented and innovative people because it still values merit above birthright.

The H1B visa debate

The H1B visa program allows U.S. companies to hire foreign workers to fill specialized jobs that require at least a U.S. bachelor's degree or foreign equivalent. In practice, this is often used for technology workers, especially foreign students who get a math, science, or engineering degree in the U.S. and then decide that they'd like to stay here to work.

Unfortunately, a lot of hard-working IT professionals in the U.S. have heard about H1B visas and reacted negatively to the concept because of a misunderstanding of how the program is being used and who is being affected. Many of these IT pros were caught up in the vortex of the 2001 recession and its aftermath in which many companies cut IT jobs. Meanwhile, tech companies like Cisco and Microsoft were lobbying Congress to increase the number of H1B visas for foreign workers, claiming that they didn't have enough U.S. candidates to fill all of their job openings.

With so many IT pros searching for work, it rang hollow to many people in the U.S. that big companies needed to hire foreign workers to fill job openings. Thus, many of these companies were accused of simply wanting to hire foreign nationals for less money than experienced U.S. workers. The truth was much simpler than that.

When most IT professionals rant against H1B visas, they often think of H1B candidates working in the common IT positions they work in, such as:

  • Help desk technicians
  • Network administrators
  • Systems integrators
  • Technical trainers
  • Entry-level programmers

But, the jobs that H1Bs are helping to fill are usually the much more intensive math and science professions. Those job titles include:

  • Mathematicians
  • Computer Scientists
  • Computer Engineers
  • Software Engineers
  • Electrical Engineers
  • Chemical Engineers

These aren't the people deploying your new laptop or helping you hook up your printer. These are the ones designing the motherboard for that laptop and developing the smear-free inks for that inkjet printer. For these types of jobs, the U.S. is still not graduating enough American students to fill all of the open positions.

U.S. math and science education in K-12 continues to trail the rest of the developed world and in U.S. colleges and universities it is foreign students who show much more interest in the computer science and engineering programs. For example, according to the National Science Foundation, 61% of new PhD students and 42% of new Masters students in computer science in 2006 were foreign students. In electrical engineering, the numbers are even higher: 73% of PhD students and 55% of Masters students were foreign nationals

Thus, if U.S. technology companies want to hire the best and the brightest computer talent from American schools, they often have to hire foreign students.

Cisco CEO John Cambers — one of the most outspoken proponents of the H1B program — says that the kind of jobs Cisco is using H1B to hire are the jobs that help stimulate growth and create more jobs. He said:

"I would like to see [the U.S.] be more aggressive in terms of our immigration policy for people with college degrees, especially in high-tech that we expand the H-1B status capability, because each person that we bring to this country to put in engineering and high-tech generates two to three other jobs in my company, a good three to five jobs in the local economy ... Having said that, we're going to go wherever the talent is in the world, not as a labor arbitrage play but it is a focus on the war for talent and getting the best and the brightest around the world be a part of Cisco which we are clearly trying to do."

Of course, H1B has accumulated its fair share of critics and the whole program has become a political issue that is often lumped in with NAFTA and off-shoring as programs hostile to American workers. You can find the arguments and activities of H1B's opponents on places like H1B.info.

The argument most often used against H1B is that foreign workers are paid less and don't get adequate protections from the U.S. Department of Labor. I think that's a Red herring. Because these skills are in demand, if good workers aren't getting a fair wage then there are usually multiple companies willing to offer them more. The real issue behind the H1B opposition is usually a bit of unbridled nationalism.

Sanity check

If American companies are trying to hire foreign workers to cut costs by paying someone less to do the same work here in the U.S., they should be fined and punished. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if there are some companies who are trying to use H1B to get cheap labor. Most companies I know will pay workers as little as they can possibly get away with in order to keep costs down and profits up. There need to be good policies and protections in place for H1B workers, and they need to be enforced.

However, paying foreign workers lower wages is not the primary motivation for most big tech companies wanting to hire more tech talent with H1B visas. They simply need the brainpower to compete in the global economy. I've known many U.S. students with math, science, and engineering degrees and none of them had a difficult time finding a job when they graduated. In fact, almost all of them had at least three job offers on the table before they even finished senior year. Foreign workers with H1B visas were not taking their jobs.

True patriotism should drive the U.S. to hold onto its core values — including its value of merit over birthright — and keep America's leadership role as home to the world's great technology innovators. The H1B visa program, when properly administered, is the ally of that kind of patriotism, not the enemy.

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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