The IT community needs to support foreign worker authorization as a potential path to citizenship in order to keep the U.S. globally competitive.
By Marc J. Schiller
The tech community has officially and vocally rallied around the issue of immigration reform, most notably with the recent formation of the political advocacy group FWD.us. Boasting such heavy-hitting founders as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Drew Houston of Dropbox, Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, and a slew of other tech-household names signing on as supporters, FWD.us is saying all the right things.
Of particular importance is the organization’s call for an increase in “the number of H-1B visas to attract the world’s best and the brightest workers, while implementing reforms that encourage this talent to permanently reside in the U.S.,” including “a pathway to citizenship for immigrants currently living in the United States that do not have legal status.”
So, What’s the Problem?
Unfortunately, not everyone sees things this way. There is plenty of controversy about immigration generally and about H-1B visas specifically. (The H-1B visa authorizes businesses to employ foreign workers in jobs that require expertise in specialized fields.) Some people object to H-1B visas, saying that they take jobs away from Americans. This is misguided, not because there are no problems with the program, but because it misses the big picture.
The anti-immigration argument regarding IT workers is pretty much the same one used for nearly every other class of worker, mainly that foreign IT workers drive down wages for U.S. workers. What’s more, critics say, if you look at the vast majority of the H-1B visas issued for tech workers, they go to Indian outsourcing companies operating in the U.S. These companies largely act as “body shops,” supplying low-wage workers for lower-end tech jobs. This is hardly the picture of a highly educated science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce, driving innovation and competitiveness for U.S. industries.
The problem is, and it pains me to admit it, is the H-1B critics are partially correct. I don’t for a moment agree with their conclusions or policy implications, but their general observations of what’s taking place in the IT employment marketplace is not totally wrong. So, here’s an insider’s view of what’s happening in the IT employment marketplace and a prescription for how we might fix it. But, first, some full disclosure: In addition to my own personal experiences and observations from working with IT leaders for 25-plus years, I am also drawing upon my wife’s experiences and observations as an immigration attorney. (Naturally, all legal or regulatory misstatements are my own.)
All IT workers Are Different
Broadly speaking, three tiers of IT workers exist:
● Tier I - Creators
● Tier II - Implementers
● Tier III - Supporters
Tier I workers create new products and services. They are the software and hardware engineers that design and build all of the incredible products that we know and love from companies like Apple and Google. They are the elite cadre of techies that create the foundational elements of the tech world, such as programming languages, databases and new circuit boards. These people are the innovation engines at companies like Hewlett-Packard, Oracle and thousands of other businesses serving all types of niche marketplaces.