Attracting high-skilled immigrants

Attracting high-skilled immigrants

Summary: I don't have to belabor the point with ZDNet readers that high-skill workers are fairly essential to the health of the American economy. It shouldn't really matter, however, where those high-skilled workers were accidentally born.

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I don't have to belabor the point with ZDNet readers that high-skill workers are fairly essential to the health of the American economy. It shouldn't really matter, however, where those high-skilled workers were accidentally born. I chose that description on purpose, as it is my firm belief that birthright is a fairly shaky foundation upon which to build the walls countries do against the outside world. It's about as just as saying the right to live and work in a given country is dependent on blonde hair.

Irrespective of birthplace, we should want to bring skilled workers to the United States, and historically, that is what America has done. As this opinion piece in the LA Times notes, foreign-born technology experts were instrumental in the founding of eBay, Yahoo, Sun Microsystems and Google, all companies that have more than given back to this nation by hiring legions of American citizens who were accidentally born on these shores.

Why, then, do we persist in keeping the barrier to such workers artificially high? H1-B visas are pegged at an incredibly low 65,000 per year, a limit that last year was reached in a day. Further, H1-B application fees were just hiked by the Senate to $5,000. The backlog of green card applications, the normal vehicle through which workers acquire long-term rights to live and work in the United States, is so large that some have found themselves in legal limbo for five years.

Just as a point of comparison, the European Union just announced a new "blue card" program that is designed to attract skilled workers to Europe. The card covers a two year period and is renewable, and the EU intends to complete the application process for such cards within months. Clearly, Europe is hoping to take advantage of America's ongoing anti-immigrant bias and attract workers that otherwise would have gone to the United States.

Now, I'm not going to pretend that such nativist impulses aren't rotting the moral fiber of Europe as much as America (this panic-sounding article could be the tip of an iceberg). Maybe a French version of Lou Dobbs exists that is just as much an intellectual cancer as the US version. Some European nations did vote recently against a proposed EU constitution, less so because of that document's obvious flaws and more because of fears of new expansion further east. I did notice that Swiss nationals had some rather strong anti-immigrant feelings (odd for a nation where 20% of the workforce is foreign-born, though their ire seemed more directed, paradoxically enough, at ex-Yugoslavs), and the Irish seemed to freak out whenever someone with darker skin than them was seen walking around their town (leading, inexorably, to a revocation of citizenship rights based on birth, a vote that occurred while I was living there).

Though I lived for five years in Europe, however, I am a proud American, and that's why I am flabbergasted that a nation composed entirely of immigrants (that includes you, Mr. Dobbs) is so blocked on the subject of immigration. We seem as a nation to have coalesced around the mistaken notion that if we raise enough economic barriers to the outside world (whether they be immigration barriers, or repudiation of barrier-reducing treates such as NAFTA or the WTO), we will protect our wealth from outsiders. That's nuts, and a surefire recipe for economc deflation and lack of relevance on a global stage over the long term.

We may be the largest market for products today. That status won't last a decade as fast-growing China (and slightly behind, India) start to grow in importance as a destination market. We need to be prepared to compete with an entire planet of entrpreneurs that are ready and able to offer products to these new markets. The days when American industrial might was the only game in town is over. We need to be prepared to be an active competitor in a global marketplace.

Unfortunately, we aren't. We don't emphasize the importance of the sciences as a culture (and we certainly provide very little federal money to encourage study in this area). We have let our primary schools lapse in global rankings, and politicians seem lost as to what to do about it (and we laugh at how France finds it difficult to deal with its strike-prone unions). Our medical care system is an expensive money vacuum (you know that there is a problem when "standard" rates are a 2 to 3 times multiple of what insurance companies pay). Our broadband rankings slip every year, meaning that nations such as South Korea and Japan are more likely to develop the technologies that take advantage of a real high-speed network.

Instead of dealing with these issues, we engage in property speculation, leading as it inevitably does, to a property crash, and obsess over the "threat" posed by all the people coming to this country to do low-skilled work most Americans don't want to do in the first place (ignoring, as we do, that the fact that they don't pay taxes, learn English, or feel like a real part of this country is due entirely to the fact that we have made them ILLEGAL).

Maybe I'm just feeling a bit punchy this morning, but we need to focus on the real issues, however much they might make us uncomfortable. Granted, that's a hard thing to ask during an election season when politicians compete to offer comforting easy answers, but I think we should at least try.

We can't afford to retreat to fortress America.

Topics: EU, Broadband, China, India, IT Employment

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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87 comments
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  • funny

    When u say "We need to be prepared to be an active competitor in a global marketplace" about USA, it is more funny from Europe.
    par7133_z
    • Why?

      ...because of the power of American companies (Coke, Microsoft, American movies and media , Apple, etc. etc. etc.)? Granted, America does compete on a global stage, but we seem to be removing the props that made that possible in the first place.
      John Carroll
  • I agree

    But I'm actually in favor of abolishing H1-B outright and instead making it easier to get a green card.
    John L. Ries
    • Fair enough...

      ...and would make it more a direct competitor to the EU blue card program. H1-B is little more than a bandaid on a general problem. Even so, it's what we have, and in the current climate, I think streamlining the green card program might be more complicated, however justified.
      John Carroll
      • More than a bandaid

        H!-B has rightly been compared to indentured servitude; seems people are willing to work for a lot less if the alternative is to be sent home. Green card holders, at the very least, have a much easier time changing jobs and thus are fairer competition to the workers already here.
        John L. Ries
        • True

          ...I have a swiss friend who has faced that issue, as he really can't change jobs very easily. I had a similar issue in Switzerland under a "B" permit (had to get permission from the company that got me the permit to change jobs, which not surprisingly, most are reluctant to do. I lucked out, because they company that hired me was a collapsing .bomb company).

          Frankly, if Americans are worried about being undercut by immigrant workers, they should want them to compete on a level playing field, not forced to accept less pay (and thus made artificially competitive) due to the structure of our labor laws. That applies equally to skilled AND unskilled labor, in my opinion, as legal workers are subject to the same taxation and minimum pay standards as other americans.
          John Carroll
          • H-1B workers must receive salaries...

            ... which are comparable to those of other people doing the same job. That's a calculation based on a number of factors, including the officially described job responsibilities and the salaries of other people in the area supposedly doing the same work.
            The calculation somehow still leaves the (officially temporary) workers receiving less than might be expected when examined from other perspectives.

            Legal immigrant workers are subject to American law on wages and other conditions of employment. But you're right about the actual conditions under which they work.
            Anton Philidor
          • Sort of

            ...that's a somewhat flexible definition, particularly given that, once they are here, they have little opportunity to float to a new company. THey are, in essence, tied to their current employer, which leaves the current employer less of an incentive to pay comparable salaries up front (even if they meet the minimum standards of the law), and even less incentive to maintain their salaries at reasonable levels longer term.

            We create many of our own problems through the structure of our labor laws. If we truly freed them to work wherever they wanted in the US, that would solve many fears of "price undercutting."
            John Carroll
          • Agreed... and consider the implications.

            The (temporary) immigrant workers are in fact "tied to their current employer", giving the employer "less ... incentive to pay comparable salaries" either "up front" or "longer term".

            If the workers were not tied, I suggest that the eagerness for H-1B visas would be substantially reduced because the advantages to employers would be diminished. Is it coincidence that H-1B's are popular at the same time the rules promote substantial cost savings for employers?

            Changing the rules as you suggest would test this question. Even tied to an increase in H-1B's authorized, I expect corporations to reject the proposal.
            Anton Philidor
          • To Anton:

            [i]If the workers were not tied, I suggest that the eagerness for H-1B visas would be substantially reduced because the advantages to employers would be diminished. Is it coincidence that H-1B's are popular at the same time the rules promote substantial cost savings for employers?[/i]

            Fair enough. But I'm not suggesting a more liberal labor policy in order to give employers as many cheap workers as they want. I want a more liberal labor policy (one that doesn't lock foreign workers to one employer) because it makes it easier to get the true innovators, reduces the problems as perceived by native-born Americans, and is more in line with principles of freedom.

            [i]Changing the rules as you suggest would test this question. Even tied to an increase in H-1B's authorized, I expect corporations to reject the proposal.[/i]

            Perhaps, but it doesn't mean that such a change is bad for America.
            John Carroll
    • H1B's for USCIS

      If there's any place that really needs to modernize it's IT infrastructure it's the people who are responsible for processing all of these things. The long list of screw ups, miscommunication, and general customer unfriendliness that I went through with them for my wife was shocking.

      I'd say we really need to get the current house in order before we try adding more people into the queue. (Take a look at the similar mess created with the new passport requirements.)
      Robert Crocker
  • Corrections

    You wrote:

    H1-B visas are pegged at an incredibly low 65,000 per year, a limit that last year was reached in a day. Further, H1-B application fees were just hiked by the Senate to $5,000.

    Quoting:

    That means Congress isn't raising H-1B visa fees this year. A proposal to hike fees to $5,000 from $1,500 was scrapped. Good news for employers.

    But Congress isn't raising the annual H-1B visa cap beyond the current limit of 85,000 either. (Bad news for employers wanting to hire foreign tech workers, good news for U.S. IT workers opposed to the competition.)

    http://www.informationweek.com/blog/main/archives/2007/11/h1b_visa_change.html
    Anton Philidor
    • Fair enough

      ...so my information on the rate hike was dated (as of today, it would appear). Even so, we still have a laughably low limit for skilled worker visas, and our green card program clearly isn't a viable alternative.

      We will lose the battle for the future if we persist in our narrow-minded belief that we must protect american IT workers from foreign competition on our shores. We need those workers to become Americans and found companies here. We don't need them doing the same in Bangalore...or Paris, for that matter.
      John Carroll
      • Obtaining lower expenses.

        When you write that workers would "become Americans and found companies here", you're describing the sort of person whio would found a (successful) company. That's rare anywhere in the world, and valuable in this country for the additional employment that would result.

        But those are not all the workers who might be authorized to come to the US and remain.

        The other, far larger group, includes capable and law-abiding people who are capable of doing jobs that many people already in the US can do equally well. (All presumptions, but reasonable ones.)

        In these cases, the only significant difference is cost, no?! It is, as we agreed, cheaper to import labor.

        So, without hostility to anyone, the issue here is the question, Should government actively permit organizations to further their purposes of paying lower wages for the same work?

        Different questions arise when there is a true shortage of people able to do these ordinary jobs. But I have seen no persuasive evidence that there is an insufficient number of IT people who cannot do or be trained to do these - again - ordinary jobs.

        Does the US actually lack the few hundred thousand people able to do the work most of those imported are hired to do? I have difficulty believing that.
        Anton Philidor
        • Yes, so...

          [i]In these cases, the only significant difference is cost, no?! It is, as we agreed, cheaper to import labor. [/i]

          Reduce the cost differential. Make it so that immigrant workers aren't locked to their new employer. That means employers must a) pay to bring them here, b) pay to get them registered, and c) have no guarantees that that new employee won't jump ship the minute they arrived because that employer didn't pay them a fair salary that matched their skills.

          Somehow, I think people would be less willing to bring over foreign workers unless they REALLY had skills they needed.

          [i]So, without hostility to anyone, the issue here is the question, Should government actively permit organizations to further their purposes of paying lower wages for the same work?[/i]

          No, which is why I am saying that the right approach is a looser system that grants true rights to imported workers to move around, thus depriving companies of the ability to pay low wages.

          [i]Different questions arise when there is a true shortage of people able to do these ordinary jobs. But I have seen no persuasive evidence that there is an insufficient number of IT people who cannot do or be trained to do these - again - ordinary jobs.[/i]

          If not, then removing the ability to pay lower wages by making workers able to move from job to job as other Americans do would solve the problem. Why hire someone with okay English skills, cultural barriers to other Americans, and who must be transported here and registered at mild expense when they can get a local guy who lives within the local area?

          It will happen, but only when necessary.
          John Carroll
          • On this thread and the prior, we agree, then.

            H-1B is two programs.
            Encouraging those who can add insights or entrepreneurial skills benefits the country.

            For ordinary jobs, allowing in those who can do the work at the same if not greater cost than a current resident would limit the program to situations in which current residents could not be hired, even with training.

            My view of the lingering point of disagreement is that if the financial gain to companies which imported workers disappeared, then so would the program. Still, if the cost advantage of an immigrant could actually be eliminated, it's worth the experiment.
            Anton Philidor
  • Best Math/Science college graduates

    Quoting:

    "The E.U. is saying, 'We're coming for your students. We know the U.S. produces the best math and science students coming out of college and we're going to come get them,'" the vice president of government and public affairs at the software company Oracle, Robert Hoffman said in a statement.

    http://www.nysun.com/article/65425

    A useful statement from Oracle and the NY Sun...


    The issue is not the best students; they insist upon obtaining the education they want. And people do come from other countries for the quality of education here.

    The jobs in question are those for the competent. There are many more of those jobs, and a substantial number of people from many countries can fill them. That means the issue is one of a national policy favoring citizens or non-citizens when there are more than enough qualified people.

    H-1B includes a separate category for the best. But our concern should be for the rest.
    Anton Philidor
    • Best 20,000 per year.

      Quoting:

      "Advanced degree holders can already be issued visas on top of the regular H-1B cap, but the number of extra visas made available for them is limited to 20,000 in a single government fiscal year."

      http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic&articleId=9014081&intsrc=hm_list


      Hopw many more than 20,000 of the best would Mr. Carroll want to see in any single year?
      Anton Philidor
      • I don't know how many

        ...but then again, that isn't a job for central planners in Washington to decide. It's a big world with millions of technology-related workers in the US alone. I want companies to decide how many workers they need from overseas, not bureaucrats in washington.
        John Carroll
        • If holders of advanced degrees...

          ... were the entirety of those able to enter the country under the H-1B program, I'd agree. Companies would be paying to attract the best, and the bidding from many countries would assure those hired were both expensive and highly valuable.

          The program defeated in Congress would have allowed unlimited numbers of those in the holders-of-advanced-degrees category. I would accept that, with qualifications to assure the system can't be gamed.

          In return, perhaps the current 65,000 slots for those companies choose to bring to this country (allegedly) in order to pay less money for the same work could be eliminated.

          Sound fair?
          Anton Philidor