Why America Needs More H-1B Visas

By Marc J. Schiller  |  Posted 04-18-2013

Why America Needs More H-1B Visas

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.

Why America Needs More H-1B Visas

Tier II workers are the implementers. They are highly skilled professionals who know how to take the foundational tools and technologies and turn them into working applications that solve complex real-world problems. They are essential to making things happen.

Tier III workers are the supporters. These IT professionals keep things running. They understand applications and ensure they deliver for their users. They maintain systems that are already built. For lack of a better term, they are tech support. They are the first line of defense in the world of IT.

For IT to work, we need all three tiers of workers. Each tier of worker is critical, and each requires a different skill set, which brings me back to my central point.

Unfortunately, the anti-immigration lobby correctly points out that a lot of H-1B visas are awarded to companies supplying Tier III workers. And as important as Tier III is to the effective deployment and use of technology, when you look at this tier of workers on their own, they don’t exactly look like the answer to our country’s STEM gap and innovation challenges.

I am not qualified to say whether these workers are reducing wages for U.S. workers. What I do know is that the H-1B visa requires employers to pay the prevailing wage as determined by the U.S. Department of Labor. Therefore, if anyone is to blame for wage pressures coming from H-1B workers, it is the U.S. government, not the foreign workers, that is at fault. Personally, I believe it’s more an outcome of general market forces that are demanding ever-greater skills and productivity for the same compensation, but I’ll leave that issue for the economists.

What We Must Do

There are lots of ideas about how to solve the immigration issue, but there are two ideas in particular that we, as IT leaders, can and should support.

First, provide a work visa and a path to citizenship for foreign nationals that graduate with STEM degrees from accredited U.S. institutions. This is a no brainer. 

Second, expand the H-1B guest worker program for highly qualified STEM workers from abroad. The magic words here are “highly qualified.” In other words, let’s raise the bar to ensure we are getting the best and the brightest from abroad. And lest you think this is too complex for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), think again because they are already doing it. 

There is an immigrant visa known as the EB-1, as well as a temporary non-immigrant O category visa. Both visas are for outstanding people in their particular profession. World-class musicians, ballet dancers, Olympic athletes and top-notch scientists of all types gain entry to the U.S. with these visas. Right or wrong, the standards for these visas, particularly the EB-1, are stratospheric, so they lack the ability to accommodate the wide-scale need for young Tier I and Tier II workers who have not yet made the grade. But what the EB-1 and O visas do prove is that the USCIS is smart to the fact that all professionals are not the same.

On a more personal and grass-roots level, there are two more things to do. First, talk to an immigrant and hear her or his story. It’s amazing to learn firsthand how the light of America still burns bright for people around the world. This will help personalize the issue for you and take it out of the conceptual policy realms of Washington.

Second, get involved in the conversation. Join FWD.us. Tweet a link to this article or talk about it with others. Email or call your congressional representatives and let them know what you think.

Why America Needs More H-1B Visas

Why I Care

My articles normally contain concrete advice or tips for IT leaders to implement right away to make their careers more successful. Not today. Today is about gaining a deeper understanding of an important issue for our community, combined with a sense of national pride.

The United States is a nation of immigrants. My father came to this country at the age of 14, after surviving the horrors of the concentration camps during World War II. He had nothing but a dream and the willingness to work as hard as he could to make a life for himself in what he always told me was the greatest country in the world. He proudly served in the U.S. Navy, became a distinguished electrical engineer, and put his talents to work designing systems to limit air pollution.

I support foreign worker authorization as a potential path to citizenship because I believe with every fiber of my being that it is what makes America great. Our intellectual vibrancy and leadership has always been sustained by new arrivals. The U.S. will lose out irreparably, economically and technologically if it strangles this inlet for talent.

Join me and FWD.us in the fight to keep our country great by supporting comprehensive immigration reform.


About the Author

Marc J. Schiller has spent more than two decades teaching IT strategy and leadership to the world’s top companies around the globe. Through online courses, speaking engagements and corporate consulting, his company educates IT pros at all levels how to be more effective, influential and successful in their IT careers. Get access to free videos and a free excerpt from his book, The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders, at www.marcjschiller.com/resources.