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H-1B Remains a Hot-Button Issue

New bills and congressional wrangling will decide the limits of temporary work visas.

By Bob Violino
July 17, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - How might new immigration laws and changes in the H-1B temporary visa program affect the state of the IT profession by 2010? It's hard to predict what the U.S. Congress will do this year, let alone over the next four years. But there are a finite number of scenarios that could have an impact on IT workers here in the U.S. -- and experts think there will be plenty of career opportunities in IT regardless of what happens.

Several bills currently in Congress could affect the visa program. The Senate recently passed the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (S. 2611), which calls for increasing the H-1B visa cap from the current 65,000 to 115,000 annually and automatically increasing the cap by 20% in any year in which the cap is met. The bill also calls for the removal of limits on H-1B exemptions for foreign students who graduate from U.S. colleges and universities with advanced degrees.

Another bill, the Securing Knowledge, Innovation, and Leadership (SKIL) Act of 2006 (S. 2691), also would increase the H-1B visa cap to 115,000.

Despite the calls for a higher cap on visas in the proposed legislation, some observers expect to see little or no change in the U.S. policy on temporary work visas over the next several years.

"We're not seeing demand [for more visas] from our clients," says John Bace, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., who covers IT and public policy. He says Gartner uses a "life-cycle model" that tracks societal needs that generally trigger public policy such as congressional legislation. "Using that model, I don't see any gap that's driving [the need for more visas] at this time," he says. "I'd say the program will probably continue the way it is."

But others maintain that there's a substantial shortage of skilled IT workers in the U.S. that's spurring a need for more temporary work visas. "We're just not training [enough students] in technology, science, engineering and mathematics," and companies are looking overseas for these skills, says Nancy Markle, past president of the Society for Information Management in Chicago and a member of the board of a new SIM foundation set up to support technology education programs.

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