Enlarging--and Enriching--the U.S. Labor Pool

If President Clinton signs a bill increasing the number of H-1B visas allowed to be issued, more IT managers would finally be able to fill long-empty staff positions. Ending workforce shortages would bolster corporate bottom lines as well as the U.S. economy.
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The History of H-1B Visas
1952: The H-1B visa is born. There is no limit on the number of recipients.

1990: Immigration Reform Act caps number of H-1Bs issued at 60,000.

1998: The cap is raised. A temporary measure increases H-1Bs to 115,000 for 1999 and 2000, and to 107,000 for 2001.

2000: In March, the Hatch-Abraham H-1B bill cleared the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. It was passed by the Senate and the House in October. If signed by the president, it will raise the cap on the number of H-1B visas issued to 195,000 in 2000 and for each of the next two years.

Depending on who you ask, H-1B visas are either a critical tool that the United States technology community must fully exploit or they're a cheesy way for big companies to hire help at below-market rates.

The number of H-1B visas issued each year is currently restricted. But with both houses of Congress having recently passed a bill that, if signed by the president, will increase the number of skilled workers allowed into the United States, H-1Bs demand to be examined anew.

A temporary-professional or H-1B visa allows qualified foreign candidates to obtain temporary employment in the United States within their chosen field. These candidates often are educated in the U.S. and have completed professional training here. Petitions for H1-B visas must be sponsored by a U.S. company seeking employees for "specialty occupations" and filed with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in Washington, D.C.

Interviews with IT managers, industry analysts, and partisans from both sides of the quota increase issue yield passionate arguments all around. And while education, training, and better use of U.S.-born workers are the long-term keys to solving the IT personnel shortage, it seems inevitable that the nation will jack up the visa cap once again to fill the jobs that fuel the economy.

Case in point: Brent Ozar, a Web developer at Telman Decision Information, has a problem that would appear to be a perfect fit for an H-1B worker. Houston-based Telman Software Inc., which makes back-office systems for hotels, "uses an obscure database platform called Clarion, and it's bigger in Europe than it is here," says Ozar. "As a result, we have a qualified need for people from Europe." Because of the current cap in H1-B visas, "We can't get them," he says.

Status Report

Many people forget that the H-1B program has existed for almost 50 years and that the number of visas granted was uncapped until the Immigration Reform Act of 1990. The act, supported by organized labor, limited the number of temporary workers allowed into the United States to 60,000, but nearly tripled permanent employment-based immigration. Labor's rationale was that the increase in permanent immigration would lessen the need for temporary workers.

In 1998, the H-1B cap was raised to 115,000, primarily to address the lack of qualified IT workers, but the continuing shortages in IT appear to have rendered that number inadequate. According to the INS, in 2000, it took only until March to hit that quota. As a result, no other temporary workers will be allowed to enter the U.S. for the remainder of this year.

To face this continuing challenge, Congress this month passed a bill--The American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act--that would once again increase the cap to 195,000 skilled workers in 2000 and in each of the next two years. According to the bill now before President Clinton, workers at higher-education and research organizations would not fall under the cap. And H-1B employees who change employers would be allowed to start working as soon as they filed new petitions.

This elimination of red tape would make a big difference to employers and workers alike. Presently, IT workers often sit idle in the United States for several months while waiting for their transfer petitions to be approved.

The Gap

So is there an IT worker shortage? Of course there is. You can point to the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) in Arlington, Va., which in a recent report said that in 2000, more than 800,000 IT jobs--that's 1 out of every 12--will go unfilled. Some opponents have questioned the accuracy of the ITAA's numbers, but there are plenty more reports echoing the those stats.

In a June 1999 report, the U.S. Department of Commerce's Office of Technology Policy (OTP) in Washington, D.C., said the country needs almost 150,000 new technology workers a year until 2006 in order to meet anticipated demand. Universities and other programs are not even close to producing that many skilled workers, according to the report, because students aren't choosing IT-related careers.

A recent study from the Washington, D.C.-based Department of Labor said that in the decade between 1998 and 2008, the five fastest-growing occupations would all be computer related. Programmers are among these jobs.

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