Sen. Hatch calls high-skilled worker shortage ‘a crisis’

He outlines a Republican tech agenda for next year

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) this week outlined the Republican tech agenda for the next Congress, and took a position that puts him at odds with some in his own party.

Hatch, in a speech at the corporate offices of Overstock.com in Salt Lake City, called for raising the cap on H-1B visas. "Our high-skilled worker shortage has become a crisis," said Hatch, who heads the Senate Republican High-Tech Task Force.

To support the idea of a skilled-worker shortage, Hatch cited the high demand for H-1B visas. There were 172,500 petitions this year for the 85,000 visas available under the cap, he said.

"American companies were thus unable to hire nearly 90,000 high-skilled workers they need to help grow their domestic businesses, develop innovative technologies, and compete with international competitors," said Hatch, according to the prepared text of his remarks.

In sketching out his views on tech legislation, Hatch also talked about the need for patent litigation reform, updates to privacy protections, and incentives to businesses to encourage sharing of cyber-threat information. One incentive could be a form of liability protection.

But by arguing that H-1B demand is evidence of a high-tech worker shortage, Hatch is taking a position that runs counter to fellow Republicans, namely Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

In a speech on the House floor this summer, Sessions argued that there was no evidence of a shortage of skilled workers, and said many STEM-trained workers struggle to find employment.

Grassley, who will become Senate Judiciary Committee chairman with oversight of immigration policy if Republicans re-take the Senate next month, has been critical of the use of H-1B visas by offshore outsourcing firms. These firms are the major users of the visa. In 2007, Grassley said: "Unfortunately, the H-1B program is so popular that it's now replacing the U.S. labor force."

By giving this speech just before the Nov. 4 election, Hatch is signaling to the high-tech industry what it can expect if the Republicans win a Senate majority.

Hatch wants the Senate to take up the high-skill immigration issue separate from broader comprehensive immigration reform to improve its odds of passage. The Senate last year did approve a comprehensive immigration bill that would allow the cap to increase to 180,000, but it was tied to comprehensive reform. The House of Representatives did not take the issue up.

If the Republicans take the Senate, they would still need Democratic support to get an H-1B cap increase, and Democratic leaders may still want to tie that to a comprehensive agreement.

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