Agiloft CEO: H1-B visa restrictions are 'economic suicide'

Colin Earl, a 25-year veteran of the software industry, explains what the US needs to do to ASAP to assure itself a leadership position in tomorrow's tech future.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer

Agiloft CEO Colin Earl is a 25-year veteran of software industry who worked at IBM, General Electric, and several start-ups before founding Agiloft, a Silicon Valley contract and workflow management firm, in 1991.


Earl spoke with ZDNet recently about why he thinks that the US is chasing away the entrepreneurs who will form the next wave of Googles and Microsofts amidst a severe shortage of tech talent and what the US needs to do to urgently to assure itself of a leadership position in tomorrow's tech future.

You've been a vocal critic of the current round of moves in the US to rein in the H-1B visa for skilled workers. Could you extrapolate?

I think the restrictions on the H1-B visa are a form of economic suicide. Jobs follow engineers. The impact of not allowing the brightest and the best into the US to work for US companies, to form US companies, and eventually to possibly become US citizens will be devastating. It's not that those jobs are going to Americans. American tech graduates with engineering degrees and computer science degrees or who are experts in systems admin are already fully employed. Today companies in Silicon Valley are poaching jobs from one another which is already incredibly disruptive to product development.

Take for example a H-1B visa holder working for us - he is, in all likelihood, not getting his visa renewed and will return to China. He has an extraordinary skill set as well as an intellectual aptitude and capability. That job will go with him and in all likelihood we will be asking him to find other people like him with strong computer science and engineering backgrounds to work for us from there. Fact is, we have been trying to fill that position and others like it for the past year. We are better rated on Glassdoor than Google which is one of the best companies to work for than. We offer excellent pay, attractive stock options, 401 k, but we still can't fill that position.

But isn't the current legislation trying to do just that - prevent outsourcing companies from scarfing up all the visas leading to scarcity for people like the employee you just mentioned?

You can address that not by restricting H-1B visas but by increasing the minimum pay necessary to qualify for such a visa. Make it an unlimited number but everyone working here has to earn at least $75,000 a year. Make that your salary floor.That addresses the core issue head-on. You will get people with appropriate skill sets. You will allow tech companies to grow.

Today Apple and Intel are forming tech centres abroad. Intel has a huge research and development presence in India. Microsoft has a massive campus in Vancouver. Jobs follow top talent. If you don't allow top talent to percolate in the US you are exporting jobs. In the long term, which is about 10 years in hi tech, you will be exporting the next industry. People will increasingly be trained and brought up to highest levels of tech excellence in Vancouver and China and India, where they will leave their employers to create the next Google and Facebook -- but they they will do it there. They will pay taxes abroad and contribute to a foreign economy. In the long term, you are creating competition to American tech giants. That is beyond bad, it is catastrophic.

But isn't Trump, to be fair, trying to keep people who have graduate degrees from good institutions to stay behind? Could it be that he's not communicating what he wants well enough?

I suspect he does want that, but like many politicians he wants several things that are contradictory. He wants to appease unemployed workers in America - large swathes who are suffering, especially in the rust belt. He wants to assure them that he is stemming the flow of foreigners coming in to take their jobs. But he is also talking to bankers and hedge fund managers more than he is talking to people that he really needs to talk to like companies in the tech sector.

I am no socialist. I am a Silicon Valley CEO for God's sake! America has to invest in education, especially in engineers, computer scientists, systems administrators and spend money on making it affordable for sons and daughters of coal miners and steel workers to get a first rate engineering education, to train them for jobs of the next century. Doing so will pay for itself many times over. That provides a long term solution to the problem. It will make it virtually impossible for cheap outsourcers to flood the market once they have competition from well-qualified American graduates. Today, we're desperately short of talent. Americans with computer science degrees straight out of college are earning well over $100,000 a year - and they are useless! Let me tell u, I've been in this industry for thirty years and was one of these individuals once. The firms that are employing them do so thinking they will become useful a year from then, after a year of training.

Do you think there is a shortage or a surplus of the lower-end system engineers and app developers?

There is a shortage of people who are worth employing. Absolutely, there is a shortage of folks that a company would feel good about employing. There is an adequate supply of B-, C+ players and what happens is that employers are so desperate that they will hire a dozen or so in the expectation that two or three will be worth keeping.

Agiloft has a technology stack that removes the need for manual programming. So we can employee people who are just very smart. They don't need a degree in computer science or whatever. I'll give you an example. We employed a very smart girl with a degree from Princeton who was working in a dental office as an office manager earning $40,000. We gave her an aptitude test which she nailed and she's now earning $80,000.

So, all you need is a logical mind -- you could have a degree in philosophy, for instance, and make it to your firm or another similar place in the Valley today.

Absolutely! One of our top people has a Phd in musicology. She is doing enterprise implementation for companies like Chevron.

Do you see that as the future for the tech world?

Increasingly, yes. That, coupled with the development of AI. The required skill set is always evolving.

What is the sense from where you sit of what companies are going through in this talent drought that you are talking about?

There's a sense of despair at not finding American workers in Silicon Valley. Companies have pretty much given up on the notion that they can build a work force that can communicate with one another physically. There are very few exceptions. Google and Apple and Facebook are earning so much money, at revenues between $0.5 mill to $2 million per employee, that they can afford to employ people in Silicon Valley. For the rest of us, companies are giving up on notion of having work force that comes into same office each day.

Instead we are employing people wherever we can find the talent. Agiloft is small company but we are advertising in Canada, advertising positions here in the Valley, North Carolina, India, China, New Zealand, wherever we can find people -- and everybody else is doing the same thing. Microsoft is building campuses abroad and every tech company is either doing or trying to do the same thing. And it's not just tech - accounting firms are doing it! Almost everyone who can is employing folks remotely, from home offices or starting satellite offices.

So what kind of immigration policies would you implement if you were in the 'hot seat?'

I would have an open door policy for hi-end tech talent that was able to command salaries of $100,000 in places like the Valley. I would raise the floor for the H-1B visa but have a significant increase in visa numbers for folks in the $75,000 plus range. I would take money from folks who will never work again - the retired and elderly and I would put that into training young people. As a politician I would probably never be able to state it - if you look at how much government is spending in the last ten years of a person's life versus youngsters in their first twenty years - the numbers are completely out of whack. The former will never pay off. The latter always does.

So what do you say to the American techie who says that he or she cannot get a job and that their jobs are being replaced by cheap labour from abroad?

I'd say its rubbish! Let me give you an example of a guy that we employed. He wanted to become a programmer. He didn't have training and went off to a 12 week - not even a 2 or 3 year course - but a 12 week bootcamp on coding and is now a programmer. That's all it took for him to get a job. Of course, the guy was smart. And it goes without saying that of course engineering and computer science is not a career you can follow unless you have the mental aptitude for it. However, these jobs are your's for the taking if you have some basic training and aptitude for it.

So what you are saying is heartening for all those American tech workers out there - that it's never been better to be an engineer, that if you do the right things and are smart enough, there are plenty of jobs out there for you.

Oh, absolutely! We're employing people north of a $100,000 a year who don't even have a college degree. Linux systems administrators with no college degree and just a high school degree with some experience are thriving.

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