Engineer's wife 'ferocious' in Obama Q&A on H-1Bs

Texas couple hears from many after unemployed engineer's wife questions president on visa program

The White House is following up on an offer made by President Barack Obama this week to help find a job for an unemployed semiconductor engineer in Texas. The offer was made during a live online town hall after the engineer's wife questioned the government's policy concerning H-1B visa workers.

Jennifer Wedel of Fort Worth asked why the government continues "to issue and extend H-1B visas when there are tons of Americans just like my husband with no job?"

She was persistent and at one point broke in on the president as he gave a response, to ask: "Why do you think the H-1B program is so popular with corporations?"

After learning that Darin Wedel is a semiconductor engineer, Obama said that "the word we're getting is that somebody in that kind of high-tech field, that kind of engineer, should be able to find something right away. And the H-1Bs should be reserved only for those companies who say they cannot find somebody in that particular field."

Obama asked for Darin Wedel's resume and said he would "forward it to some of these companies that are telling me they can't find enough engineers in this field."

"It's kind of an awesome experience to have somebody in the White House pushing for you to get a job," Wedel said. But "as much as it thrills me and our personal situation, it really doesn't help the average American that's in my same situation."

The couple has been contacted by many people since the live town hall. "Our inboxes are filled with people thanking us for bringing this issue up," he said in an interview.

Wedel also said the president's view on the job prospects for engineers in his field "is definitely not what's happening in the real world."

Wedel recounted how he was laid off from Texas Instruments about three years ago as part of the company's decision to close a manufacturing facility named after Jack Kirby, a TI employee who would later receive the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in integrated circuits. A few months later he was called back to work in IT at another factory; he was there for about nine months when a dip in the market led to another layoff. Wedel has also had a contracting job for a short time in the intervening period.

Although Texas Instruments has played a prominent role in lobbying for the H-1B program, Wedel can't pinpoint what role H-1B visas may have had in his layoffs, if any. But he definitely believes the visa is a factor in getting a new job.

"The preference of big corporations is to hire the H-1B folks instead of hiring Americans with 10-plus years of experience like myself," Wedel said.

One way that increased competition from H-1B workers hurts is in the ability of tech workers to gain training in related areas, said Wedel. For instance, he believes his experience as a semiconductor engineer is closely related to quality engineering, but it has been very difficult to convince prospective employers "to give me a shot at a different industry," such as in medical devices.

The visa use is putting more people in the marketplace and that makes it "less likely for (employers) to have to train anyone or do any kind of ramp-up at all," he said.

Mr. Wedel said he has worked many friends who are visa holders, and is "certainly not against immigration and giving people a chance to come to this country and work."

But with employment still high, he believes that "it's only prudent to adjust the levels of immigrants that are allowed to come here."

Wedel would like to see the H-1B cap reduced, but he is not expecting the Obama administration to do that and says it favors loosening the restrictions.

Wedel, who said his wife can be "ferocious," acknowledged she was fortunate to have the opportunity to question the president.

The questions were submitted to Google, which picked them. "The people at Google told us that the president did not have any idea ahead of time the questions that were going to be asked and I think that showed in his response," he said.

Wedel said he and his wife plan to continue "to express our beliefs and do what's right" and "use my situation to help that agenda in any way possible." But when the "15 minutes" of fame has passed, he said he and his wife will "be totally comfortable to going back to our lives and the calm of no media."

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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