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An H-1B cap hike would mean a grim future for workers

Patrick Thibodeau | May 20, 2014
If Congress approves comprehensive immigration reform, it will likely more than double the cap on H-1B visas. What happens then sounds dystopian for workers.

Salzman said that only one of every two STEM graduates is now employed in a STEM job after graduation, even in professional fields such as computer science and engineering. Schools "produce 50% more graduates than are hired every year," he said.

Supply is also very responsive to demand, and average wages, adjusted, have remained the same since the 1990s, said Salzman.

Today, guest workers fill a third to a one-half of all openings in IT each year, said Salzman. For those under 30 years of age, the number of guest workers equals about two thirds of all new hires in IT, he said.

Guest workers make up about 30% to 40% of the IT workforce "and we expect that number to be increasing as a large supply comes in," said Salzman.

H-1B workers earn less, 5% to 10% below a comparable U.S. worker, and the program shifts hiring to younger workers, replacing older workers, said Salzman. It also weakens the bargaining position of older workers, he said.

Salzman, Matloff and others have pointed to the recent " no poaching" case in Silicon Valley, where high-tech firms were accused of agreeing not hire key employees from one another, as evidence that tech firms want to keep employees from leaving their jobs.

Similarly, the H-1B worker is attractive to tech firms because it's difficult for these workers to change jobs, particularly if they are being sponsored for a green card. It amounts to a form of "handcuffing," and given a choice between an equally qualified American worker and an H-1B worker, the tech firm may favor hiring a visa worker.

Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel and executive vice president, has argued that the number of new job openings requiring a bachelor's degree in computer science equals about 122,300 a year. To that, Salzman points out that the 180,000-visa cap in the Senate bil would give the IT industry 150% of what it says is needed.

Teitelbaum said the U.S. gone through five cycles since World War II, where alarms were sounded about shortages of scientist and engineers, with the government responding by increasing the flow either with visas or through education "and then after a booming period of growth, the system sort of busts and we have large numbers of people in these fields laid-off and a lot of prospective students turned off from going into these fields."

Teitelbaum called it an unhealthy history, and "we may be in the process of repeating it."

Tietelbaum's research is in his new book, Falling Behind, Boom, Bust & the Global Race for Scientific Talent. In it, he said that over the past two decades, lobbying and public relations efforts to convince U.S. political elites "that the country faces damaging and widespread shortages in its critical science and engineering workforce can only be described as stunning successes.


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