On one side are IT employers, as exemplified by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates. Speaking before a Senate committee earlier this month, Gates said that America is facing a critical shortage of tech workers. He recommended boosting the number of H-1B visas to allow more foreign tech workers into the U.S. His opinion is echoed by the ITAA, an industry trade group that states “an enlightened approach” requires the U.S. to attract IT experts from around the globe.
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On the other side are American IT workers, many of whom take a dim view of increasing H-1B visas. Not surprisingly, their stance is: hire American workers. Their attitude is exemplified by the Programmers Guild, which claims that bringing in more foreign workers will enable U.S. companies to pay $25,000 less to equivalent professionals.
While the conflict is complicated, some observers boil it down to a simple question: is there truly a shortage of IT workers in the U.S.?
If there’s really a shortage, then clearly the U.S. needs to issue more H-1B visas – and fast, or risk the decay of the domestic tech industry, clearly one of the jewels of the U.S. economy.
Yet if talk of a “shortage” is merely an employer gambit, an attempt to pressure domestic IT workers to accept lower pay, then certainly the government shouldn’t abet that by allowing in more foreign talent.
Dr. Al Lee, an executive with salary information site Payscale, has sifted through reams of IT pay data. He notes that tech workers are highly paid relative to other professionals, a condition which could suggest a scarcity.
Yet that still doesn’t fully answer the question, he tells Datamation. “Whether there’s a shortage, or whether Bill [Gates] would just rather pay $50,000 for a developer rather than $80,000,” he says, with a laugh, “is a question.”
Unfilled IT Jobs
In truth, arguing about whether there’s a shortage of IT workers is an oversimplification. The tech market is a sprawling sector, from hardware to software to networking and beyond.
Regardless of whether there’s a general shortage, inarguably there are some niches that are genuinely hard for employers to fill.
Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director for Robert Half Technology, is constantly involved with filling tech vacancies. While she can’t comment on the overall tech market (because her work is highly specialized) she does see certain vacancies that are harder to fill.
“When we are looking for individuals with .NET development skills, SQL Server development skills, Windows 2000 Server administration (especially those with Active Directory), we have a heck of a time finding those three skill sets,” she tells Datamation. (In fact those three skills are numbers one, two and three – in that order – in terms of difficulty to fill.)
And, “We’re starting to have difficulty in locating individuals who have the Web 2.0 skill set – Java, PHP, and AJAX,” she says.
The controversy over H-1B visas is far from black and white, she says. Many industry partisans want a yes or no to the question of issuing more H-1Bs. However, “The answer might be yes, as long at it’s one way to potentially offset a shortage of skill sets.” In reality, there may be multiple answers to this question.
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Adding to the complexity of the issue, technology constantly reinvents itself, she notes. “.NET wasn’t in existence five years ago. Web 2.0 has kind of been the hot buzz within the last 12 months.” In the constantly churning IT marketplace, full of unknowns (what’s next on the horizon, how quickly will it be adopted?) the workforce is necessarily left scrambling to fill holes.
Which means workers – American or foreign – must run to keep up. “It’s very much the responsibility of those in information technology to keep their skill sets current,” Lee says. Attorneys and accountants are required by law to take continuing education classes. Tech pros are left to their own initiative.
“That’s what I see people get the most turned around about,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘Why would we bring in people from other countries?’ Maybe because they have a skill set that we don’t have here – or enough of here.”
The Global Fuel
Zeus Kerravala, a Yankee Group analyst who covers IT employment trends, notes that in the highly competitive tech market, companies seek the best talent regardless of nationality.
“Is there a shortage of [American] tech workers? Not really, but I think what U.S. companies are always striving for is the best employee,” he says.
It’s hard to fault a company that finds a qualified candidate that’s not an American and needs an H-1B visa to hire them, he says. And at any rate, companies that want to select from overseas candidates will always find a way to do so, regardless of the number of H-1B visas.
Going a step further, some experts say it’s in America’s best interest to import as much tech talent as possible. The U.S. “needs to be the place in the world where the most skilled workers want to come,” says John Challenger, CEO of global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas.
“It’s crucial to our long-term success as an economy,” he tells Datamation. “It’s the fuel, more than oil – which we’re happy to import – of a post-industrial economy.”
Some argue that if companies can’t bring foreign tech workers to the U.S., they’re more motivated to offshore their operations. So increasing the number of H-1B visas might actually stem the loss of American IT jobs. Furthermore, the U.S. currently allows a mere 65,000 H-1B visas annually, a small number in relation to the domestic tech industry.
But whatever the benefits of foreign talent, U.S. workers fear that they’ll depress wages. There’s an element of truth to that argument, Kerravala says.
If importing foreign workers is being used to lower wages, “It hurts all the other people in that position,” he says. And it may even hurt the employer, if low-paid employees leave to get higher wages.
“The more skilled workers you have competing for jobs, [the more] it can lower the cost,” Challenger notes. But the downside is worth the benefit: “It’s a macro vs. local issue. The less expensive it is [for companies] to invest and build their system, the more competitive our economy will be globally.”
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Furthermore, Kerravala says, while “There are a number of companies that use foreign workers as a way to get cheaper labor, I do think in a lot of cases, they use it to get the right labor.”
Blocking foreign workers as a way to protect U.S. tech professionals is a limited approach, he says. Instead, better education and training is the answer.
“What you’re seeing in the tech industry is, we’re going through a pretty fast shift, from a lot of older technology to a lot of newer technology. A lot of the newer technology is innovated in other countries.”
“As a country, we need to take some of those older workers and retrain them. And perhaps the government, instead of capping [H-1B visas] should focus on that.”
America: the Great Slacker?
Perhaps the most compelling question of the H-1B visa debate is: Why does America find itself in a position where major U.S. firms are lobbying to bring in more foreign IT workers?
Traditionally, the U.S. has been the global technology leader, from the early days of IBM mainframes to the Internet explosion of the late ‘90s. Moreover, tech jobs are highly paid jobs, with some experienced IT workers bringing home six figures.
Why aren’t there more than enough highly qualified American workers applying for every tech opening?
“I think we did get behind,” Kerravala says. “When I go to a lot of these conferences, and people talk about wi-fi mesh and advanced IP services into peoples’ homes, we’re talking about delivering more technology into locations that already have a lot of technology, versus delivering high speed Internet access into the areas of the country that are poor and don’t have it. So as a country we tend to ignore a lot of those locations.”
This emphasis on the few over the many doesn’t serve the U.S. well, he observes.
“I think that has created an environment where the population of advanced skill workers has shrunk a lot in the U.S., because we just haven’t created a fair system,” he says. “Where if you go to other countries, you’ll find national policy around broadband deployment, which creates a much more even playing field for people of all income levels to learn by and work by.”
“We did it to ourselves,” he says.