IBM defends use of temp visa workers

H-1B program is necessary to meet customer needs, company says

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IBM says the growth in technologies such as cloud, analytics, mobile and security is "exacerbating the skills shortage" in the tech industry, and underscores the need for temporary foreign tech workers.

The firm made this point in a letter to U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Judiciary Committee chairman, in response to a query from the senator on IBM's use of the H-1B visa.

Grassley, in his letter, said that IBM applied for approximately 5,800 petitions for H-1B visas on April 1, which was the first day that firms could apply for visas for 2016. IBM said it expected only a fraction of the visa applications would be approved. Competition is fierce: The U.S. received 233,000 H-1B visa petitions for 85,000 visas and awards them to applicants via a lottery.

This letter from IBM serves as both a defense of the H-1B program and an argument for its expansion. IBM isn't as public in its lobbying as Microsoft, but the company's influence in Washington is deep.

IBM CEO Virginia Rometty, along with her counterparts from Xerox, Dell, Micron Technology, Qualcomm and EMC, met with President Barack Obama in March on a number of tech issues. Immigration was singled out as a topic in the White House summary of this meeting.

The letter from IBM to Grassley was posted by the Alliance at IBM, a local chapter of the Communications Workers of America union.

IBM said it brings in foreign workers who "who have specific profiles and expertise that we cannot source locally in a timely way to fulfill client requirements."

If it can't bring those skills into the U.S. "then our clients may be forced to move the work to the skills out of the U.S.," wrote IBM. The company also said that it "does not make a practice of cutting positions in the U.S. and then replacing those same positions with either U.S. citizens or foreign visa holders."

The company, in a slap to some of its offshore outsourcing competitors, said temporary visa holders account for only around 5% of its U.S. workforce, which is "apart from other companies that have upwards of 90% of their U.S. workforce on visas."

The firm's claims were met with skepticism in some quarters. Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Howard University, said that 98% of the H-1B petitions that IBM had approved by the U.S. government from fiscal years 2008 through 2013 were in computer occupations, "the very same types of positions IBM has been downsizing in the U.S."

The median wage for those H-1Bs, according to the petition data, was $74,753, said Hira, "which is way below the average wages for those types of positions."

"We know that IBM is using the H-1B program to bring in workers who are being paid a lot less than the average wage," said Hira. "IBM is certainly not paying its H-1B workers as though they have specialized skills."

IBM cut its U.S. workforce as it grew India-based operations, but accurate numbers are difficult to get. IBM stop disclosing the size of the U.S. workforce in 2010, and its last officially reported headcount was about 105,000. The Alliance estimates IBM's headcount today at about 76,000.

The firm continues to have layoffs, almost annually, but said in its letter to Grassley that it plans to hire 10,000 in the U.S. this year alone.

The letter to Grassley offers "a lot of generalizations with no evidence, no specifics," such as a skills shortage, said Hal Salzman, a Rutgers University professor who studies STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) workforce issues. IBM is "entitled to keep data confidential but I would argue they are not entitled to ask for public benefits, government intervention into the market without providing some evidence for these claims."

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