U.S. Firms Trying to Raise Limits on High-Tech Visas

U.S. companies forced to put plans on hold waiting for scientists and engineers and that's no way to run a business says Oracle CEO.

Facing another squeeze on a visa program for skilled workers, U.S. business leaders are stepping up efforts to raise the limits, arguing that the nation is running short of the talent it needs to remain competitive. A broad coalition of businesses, especially in the tech sector, are warning that the quota of 65,000 for the so-called H-1B visa program on April 1, is likely to be filled the first day submissions are accepted for the fiscal year starting October 1. If that occurs, employers seeking to hire skilled foreigners will have to wait for next year's application to hire people in October 2009.

It would be the second year in a row that the limit will have been reached on the first day, and will prompt the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency to resort again to a "lottery" to award these visas.

Robert Hoffman, vice president at Oracle and head of the Compete America coalition, said the squeeze on these visas is hurting the ability of American companies to compete in the global marketplace. "This is an arbitrary and outdated cap set in 1990," Hoffman told a gathering of business leaders in Washington this past week. "For the second consecutive year, U.S. companies and research institutions will be forced to put plans on hold as they wait for a random lottery to determine who gets to hire the scientists and engineers they need. It's no way to run a business, or a visa program."

Hoffman said a recent survey showed some 140,000 job openings for skilled positions among the Standard & Poor's 500 companies, the largest firms in the United States. "It's not just a tech problem or an aerospace problem, it's a national problem," he said.

Other business leaders have blamed the cap and a backlog in other programs for permanent U.S .residency for a shortage of computer scientists, engineers and other professionals, and argue that the inability to fill the jobs forces companies to outsource work overseas.

Ron Hira, a Rochester Institute of Technology professor who has been a harsh critic of the H-1B program, argues that it is abused by offshore firms that "recycle" workers to give them training in the U.S. before outsourcing the work. "The program does not require companies to look for Americans first," he said. "Some people claim they want to bring in the 'best and brightest' but they bring in cheap labor, and it undercuts U.S. workers' bargaining power and puts U.S. companies that hire Americans at a competitive disadvantage."

Lawmakers have been cool to increasing the quotas for H-1B visas at a time of rising unemployment. Critics of the program argue that loopholes are being exploited by overseas firms, which send their nationals to the the U.S. at low wages and deprive Americans of employment. "America rose to economic prominence on the shoulders of the mostly highly skilled workforce in the world. However, during the last 30 years, skill levels in the U.S. workforce have stagnated," says a report by Jacob Kierkegaard, a Danish H-1B visa holder and researcher at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "For America to regain its leadership in global talent, it must urgently reform its high-skilled immigration."

Launched in 1990, the H-1B visa program allows foreign scientists, engineers and technologists to be employed for up to six years, at the end of which they must obtain a permanent residency or return home. Both supporters and critics of the program however agree that the prospect of a lottery for skilled workers is a flawed way to allocate the visas. Kim Berry of the Programmers Guild, an association of IT professionals who claims U.S. workers are hurt by the visa program, says it can be fixed with an alternative to the lottery. "The guild advocates that priority be given to higher skilled H-1B candidates, and that U.S. employers be given preference over foreign consulting firms," Berry said. "These simple changes would provide a means for Microsoft and other U.S. employers to have every H-1B that they submit on April 1, 2008 approved."

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2008

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