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IT workers' voices heard in the Senate, confidentially

Patrick Thibodeau | March 18, 2015
WASHINGTON - A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today on the H-1B visa offered up a stew of policy arguments, positioning and frustration.

"America and American companies need more high-skilled workers - this is an undeniable fact," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). "America's high-skilled worker shortage has become a crisis."

Hatch, who is leading the effort to increase the H-1B cap, suggested a willingness to raise wage levels for H-1B dependent employers. They are exempt from U.S. worker protection rules if the H-1B worker is paid at least $60,000 or has a master's degree, a figure that was set in law in 1998. Hatch suggested a wage level of $95,000.

Sen. Dick Durbin, (Dem-Ill.), who has joined with Grassley on legislation to impose some restrictions on H-1B visa use — particularly in offshoring — has argued for a rule that would keep large firms from having more than 50% of their workers on the visa. This so-called 50/50 rule, as Durbin has noted, has drawn much criticism from India, where most of the affected companies are located.

"I want to put the H-1B factories out of business," said Durbin.

Durbin got some support for the 50/50 rule from one person testifying in support of expanding the cap, Bjorn Billhardt, the founder and president of Enspire Learning, an Austin-based company. Enspire creates learning development tools; Billhardt came to the U.S. as an exchange student and went from an H-1B visa to a green card to, eventually, citizenship.

"I actually think that's a reasonable provision," said Billhardt of the 50% visa limit. He said it could help, "quite a bit." At the same time, he urged lawmakers to raise the cap to end the lottery system now used to distribute visas once that cap is reached.

Today's hearing went well beyond the impact of H-1B use by outsourcing firms to the displacement of workers overall.

Hal Salzman, a Rutgers University professor who studies STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) workforce issues, told the committee that the IT industry now fills about two-thirds of its entry-level positions with guest workers. "At the same time, IT wages have stagnated for over a decade," he said.

H-1B supporters use demand for the visa - which will exceed the 85,000 cap — as proof of economic demand. But Salzman argues that U.S. colleges already graduate more scientists and engineers than find employment in those fields, about 200,000 more.

"Asking domestic graduates, both native-born and immigrant, to compete with guest workers on wages is not a winning strategy for strengthening U.S. science, technology and innovation," said Salzman.


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