Obama confronted on H-1B use during Google+ hangout

President is questioned by wife of laid-off Texas semiconductor engineer

President Barack Obama faced perhaps his toughest and most direct question ever on the H-1B program by a Texas woman during an online town hall Monday.

The woman, Jennifer Weddel, was polite and direct but tenacious in getting the president to reveal some of his views about the H-1B program when she asked: "Why does the government continue to issue and extend H-1b visas when there are tons of Americans just like my husband with no job?" Her husband is a semiconductor engineer.

Weddel succeeded in getting Obama to acknowledge that there should be limits to the H-1B program.

The visa "should be reserved only for those companies that say they cannot find somebody in that particular field," Obama said.

The H-1B program is also heavily used by offshore outsourcing companies that transfer IT work overseas. See: The top 10 H-1B visa users in the U.S.

The Obama administration has argued that the U.S. is in need of engineers, especially in high tech and has outlined a plan to train 10,000 new engineers.

Here's the transcript of the section involving Weddel's question to Obama's during Google+ Hangout session:

Weddel: My husband has an engineering degree with over 10 years of experience and he was laid off three years ago and has yet to find a permanent job in his field. My question to you is why does the government continue to issue and extend H-1b visas when there are tons of Americans just like my husband with no job?

Obama: Well, Jennifer, I don't know your husband's specialty but I can tell you that there is a huge demand around the country for engineers. Now, obviously, there are different kinds of engineers, so a civil engineer, for example, right now may not be getting as much work because we're not building our infrastructure as much as we should. Which is part of the reason why in the State of the Union I said let's put folks to work -- not just construction workers, but also engineers and architects -- rebuilding our schools and roads and our bridges and so on. Where you are see seeing a lot of specialized demand is in engineering that's related to the high-tech industries. Now what industry tells me is that they don't have enough highly skilled engineers. If your husband is in that field, then we should get his resume and I'll forward it to some of these companies that are telling me they can't find enough engineers in this field. So it's going to vary, but as a basic matter there is a huge demand for engineers around the country right now ...

Weddel: (breaking in) I understand that, but how, I mean, given the list that you're getting, we're not getting that. You said in the State of the Union address for business leaders to ask themselves what can they do to bring jobs back to America. But why do you think that the H-1b program is so popular with the corporations?

Obama: Jennifer, can I ask you what kind of engineer your husband is?

Weddel: He is a semiconductor engineer.

Obama: The, see, it is interesting to me, and I meant what I said if you send me your husband's resume I'd be interested in finding out exactly what's happening right there because 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. So that wouldn't necessarily apply if in fact there are a lot of highly skilled American engineers in that position. I'd be interested in ... I will follow up on this because I'm interested in finding out and maybe we can get some information as to why your husband has been having trouble getting placed. We want to encourage more American engineers to be placed and that's part of the reason why it's so important for us to boost American manufacturing.

Weddel: I appreciate your response, Mr. President. I'll have to take you up on that, Thank you.

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.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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