Firms Pressing to Raise Immigration Limits for IT Talent

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.

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.

1 Comment

  • 65K was the prevailing annual limit, though the government was apparently lax about staying under it. The H-1B was temporarily increased to 195K, the last time in 2000 October, well after the economic depression had begun (Y2K bust in 2000 January, dot-com shake-out from 1998 through 2002, Nasdaq crash 2000-03-10, up-tick in lay-offs in 2000 July & August). It was quickly followed by massive tech lay-offs in 2000 December.
    In addition to the 65K normal limit, and the 20K limit for those with advanced degrees earned in the USA, there are an additional 10,500 E-3 visas for similar kinds of work that are set aside for people from Australia, and none of these limits apply to employment by government, colleges, universities, or non-profit organizations.
    While the tech executives continue to disingenuously argue that H-1Bs are only to bring in people with rare skills ("super-stars", "the best and the brightest", "pre-eminent"), in actuality H-1Bs were used to flood the US tech job market with mediocre but cheap talent at the margins in order to drive down compensation and employment of the many perfectly capable Americans already in the field. Of course, if they were only bringing in super-stars, the limit would need to be on the order of a mere 1K to 6K; there just are not that many super-stars in the world.
    If there really were a shortage of science and tech talent, economists would expect to see significant increases in total compensation, above inflation and above other professions. That did not happen.
    We’d expect to see more, and more generous, relocation offers. Instead, we see fewer.
    We’d expect to see more, and more substantial, new-hire training and education offers. Instead, we see fewer.
    We’d expect to see barriers to employment melt away. Instead, since the 1980s we have seen increasing barriers (various tests, series of telephone "interviews" followed by genuine interviews, stress interviews…).
    If there were a "shortage" we’d expect to see human contact names, human voice telephone numbers, e-mail addresses read by humans, fax numbers, and street addresses in nearly all ads, as well as web addresses. Instead, we see fewer.
    We’d expect employers to more conscientiously examine resumes and applications. Instead we see a decreasing tendency (and ability?) to do so, as they play a mass numbers game.
    We’d expect tech firms to expand college recruiting to more of the thousands of colleges and universities in the USA. Instead, they limited themselves to fewer than 30 (Gates recently mentioned that M$ actively recruits from a mere 26).
    We’d expect to see a higher fraction of new grads in these fields to be snapped up by employers. Instead, we saw some 35% passed over.
    We’d expect to hear recruiters complain of the small numbers of applicants. Instead, we saw them complaining of receiving hundreds of applicants for each position.
    Even during the so-called "boom", we were reading reports of unemployment rates into well into the double digits AM ong older programmers, whether or not they had conscientiously engaged in "continuous learning". In the late 1990s it was reported that going to job fairs, where recruiters would become aware of the ages of applicants early in the process, could add months to a job search.
    Students have shied away from the field because of the drop in job security and expected real (inflation adjusted) life-time earnings which has worsened since the 1980s but really took a dive during this depression.
    Go to the job sites (Monster, Dice, computerwork, etc.) and you’ll see that there are many job ads for body shops and few for full-time permanent hiring by end employers (sometimes called direct-hires). It is also interesting that none of these sites offer a simple and direct way to select ads for full-time permanent employment only or vice versa (DICE comes closest). This is not a sign of a healthy science and tech job market.

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