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Firms Pressing to Raise Immigration Limits for IT Talent

By Gene J. Koprowski
Aug 20, 2005 1:30 AM PT

Computer industry firms are struggling to cope with the dearth of IT talent -- especially now that the economy is heating up again. Microsoft founder and chief software architect Bill Gates in July decried the decline in American college students who desire careers in computer science and said something needs to be done about it.

Firms Pressing to Raise Immigration Limits for IT Talent

Last week, to solve the pressing problem, the computer industry began making noises that it wanted the federal limit on foreign guest worker visas increased -- as the the so-called H-1B visa cap has already reached the 65,000 H-1B cap for the 2006 fiscal year -- the earliest point in history at which the cap has been used up, according to the U.S. government.

Even Bill's Worried

Speaking at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit in Redmond, Wash., Microsoft founder Gates said that while his company finds many suitable engineering candidates for employment in India and China, it has a harder time recruiting qualified individuals in the U.S.

"We're very short with what we'd like to get in the States," he said. "The competition for someone with the right background is limited."

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, the Congress increased the cap by 20,000 late last year but limited those new visas to foreign graduates of U.S. universities with advanced degrees. Earlier this month, 10,379 visas had been applied for under this program, the government said. The visas were approved by Congress after this year's annual cap of 65,000 visas was reached as of the first day of the government's fiscal year, Oct. 1, 2004.

In excess of 600,000 new visas have been granted during the last five years, many of them to foreign tech workers. Thirty-nine percent of H-1B visas approved were for workers in computer-related occupations, the government said.

According to computer industry leaders, H-1Bs serve as a brake on outsourcing jobs overseas. The industry also claims the visas as a way to lessen skilled-labor shortages, as well as to give U.S. companies access to international talent as they compete overseas.

Visa Caps

Until just two years ago, the visa cap had been set at 195,000. Foes have argued that the H-1B visas are actually used nefariously, to ease the way for offshoring of IT jobs, and to hold down wages for technology workers. But, technology businesses say that because so many U.S. graduates are, in fact, foreign-born, the visas are needed to hire workers with the proper skills.

The industry groups aren't -- just yet -- saying how much of an increase in the visa limit they may seek this year, but Bob Cohen, spokesman for the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va., has said, it shall be "significant."

IT industry leaders have already been meeting with Congressional leaders, trying to discern the best way to proceed on the matter.

The popularity of computer science as a major for incoming college students fell dramatically -- more than 60 percent between 2000 and 2004, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Students are not entering computer science because it is not viewed as exciting a career as others such as medicine or the law.

Worried About Decline

During remarks last month, Gates said he is "very worried" about the precipitious decline in the number of students entering computer science. The computer industry must counter this, in the long-term, by enhancing the image of computing as a profession, he said.

"The nature of these jobs is not just ... coding," said Gates. "We can promise those people most of what they're doing won't be coding."

The software mogul continued: "The greatest missing skill is somebody who's good at understanding engineering and bridges that to working with customers and marketing. We still fall short of finding people who want to do that. I'd love to have people come to these jobs wanting to exercise people management, people dynamics as well as basic engineering skills."

Gates claims the visas as a way to lessen skilled-labor shortages, as well as to give U.S. companies access to international talent as the country competes overseas.

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