The H-1B Visa Program Counteracts Offshoring, Helps U.S. Keep Its Competitive Edge

It's a vital solution to IT talent crunch

In an ideal world, all highly skilled jobs in the U.S. would be filled by U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Today, that's not possible. As of the Oct. 1, 2005, deadline, all slots for H-1B visas for the fiscal year that began that day had already been filled. This was the first time this had ever happened. Unprecedented demand shows that U.S. businesses today can't hire enough skilled American workers -- particularly IT professionals -- to keep growing, innovating and competing globally.

Given the strong economy and resulting labor crunch, selectively bringing in well-credentialed foreigners to work here is the only realistic solution. The H-1B visa program does that, and nurturing it is vital to our businesses, economy and competitiveness in the world economy.

Companies investing in software development need programmers who are highly skilled in core Microsoft and Java technologies and can handle most of the technically demanding work. But there aren't enough Americans with the right qualifications, and this situation isn't likely to improve. Fewer college students are attracted to programming and other highly technical fields, which seem to have lost the glamour that attached to them before the dot-com crash.

I see this every day as head of an IT staffing firm placing contract consultants. Our clients have a constant demand for more help. We'd love to hire more U.S. programmers who meet client requirements, but they're rarely available. It's even difficult to hire enough programmers from abroad because of the limit of 65,000 H-1B visas a year (which covers most skilled worker areas, not just computer programmers) -- a pretty small number for a country of 298 million people.

When demand exceeds the supply of programmers, companies send more software development offshore. Unlike H-1B employees in the U.S., programmers in India and Singapore don't pay U.S. taxes or spend money on goods and services here. Offshoring is a drain on the economy, while the H-1B program contributes to the U.S. economy.

Since many companies do not feel that their development can be offshored, the labor shortage reduces the ability to produce new products, which may be delayed or canceled. Quality declines too. The cost of labor skyrockets, making our products less competitive worldwide.

Back in the late-'90s boom, we had a hypercritical IT labor shortage that spurred fundamentally unsound practices, where the cost of products exceeded their economic value. The current situation is not yet hypercritical -- but it is heading in that direction.

Meanwhile, foreign competitors are taking our concept of H-1B style visas and making it their own. Singapore, for example, has become a center for offshore development for Fortune 500 companies, importing Filipinos and others to do the work. The government of Singapore supports this process, recognizing the benefits that accrue to the economy by building infrastructure in the software development industry.

Despite its achievements, the H-1B program is still controversial, and some political leaders would like to cut it back instead of expanding it. There are a lot of misperceptions about this program. People think that the economy is still hurting and remember stories of experienced people who couldn't get jobs in the latest recession. But the economy is actually strong, and the unemployment rate of 4.7% is the lowest it's been in years. (Even during the economic nadir, top-end programmers had little trouble finding employment.)

So the idea that the H-1B program takes jobs away from Americans is a red herring. These are jobs that would otherwise go unfilled or, increasingly, be offshored. As a safety measure, each H-1B visa application carries with it a cost of $1,500, which is earmarked for educating affected U.S. workers. This measure is intended to ensure that any potentially adverse effect is minimized.

Security is another red herring. We absolutely need to make sure that aliens working in the U.S. aren't plotting against us. But programmers, doctors, nurses, scientists and engineers who apply for H-1B visas are not the people who should concern us. They're exactly the kind of people who we should be welcoming to our shores as we always have. They're the ones who advance the American dream.

The answer is not xenophobia; the answer is to continue to thoroughly check the backgrounds of applicants and to take all necessary and prudent precautions in securing our borders. When we impede the flow of critically needed, qualified workers into the U.S., we're in effect accommodating terrorists and inadvertently helping them achieve their goal of disrupting our economy.

We also need to continually expose the myths of security risk and job displacement by educating our political leaders and the public about the realities U.S. employers face in today's tight job market. The IT talent crisis creates real limitations to our economy and future prosperity. The H-1B program is an irreplaceable part of solution.

Dominic Shelzi is president of Global Consulting Group Inc. in Taunton, Mass., an IT staffing firm that recruits senior programmers from Eastern Europe and Asia to work in the U.S. under H-1B visas. He can be reached at dshelzi@bestusajobs.com.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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