A Publication of WTVP

It wasn’t long ago there was an explosive demand for highly skilled workers. Severe staffing shortages in the high tech fields, mainly IT, meant nearly 1 million high tech positions went unfilled in 2001 alone. Companies felt they had no choice but to look internationally due to the lack of certain skilled IT workers in the U.S.

However, through the first six months of the government’s recent fiscal year, applications by foreign workers for long-term H-1B work visas were down nearly 50 percent. The H-1B, which is a work permit good for up to six years, is granted to highly skilled foreigners to help fill jobs when no qualified Americans can be found. They’re coveted both by technology companies as an important recruiting tool, and would-be immigrants because the visas are ideally suited for long-term work projects and often serve as a first step toward permanent residence status.

It’s clear to immigration experts our country’s economic weakness put a damper on demand for foreign workers. Business is down in the technology industry, which accounted for more than half of all H-1B employees in previous years. Companies nowadays, they say, are finding it much easier to find and hire laid-off U.S. citizens. For foreigners trying to come to the U.S., that’s bad news.

H-1B’s were in such short supply a few years ago that employers pressed Congress to raise the ceiling on quotas to 115,000 in 1999, from 65,000 the year before. It was raised again—to 195,000—in 2001. The ceiling is scheduled to revert to 65,000 in 2004 unless Congress acts sooner. But since it’s unlikely the 195,000 cap won’t be reached this year, should Congress act sooner?

Supporters of the program say the quota should remain the same because more workers will be needed when the economy heats up again. They argue that economic weakness or not, American universities are still not producing enough high tech graduates, so employers will have to look overseas when the economy is firing on all cylinders. Lowering the quotas, they say, will only bring back employee restrictions that will hamper a company’s output, especially in high-technology sectors.

They insist H-1B hiring contributed significantly to the growth and continued good health of our economy and has helped, not hurt, the U.S worker. High-tech industry executives estimate a new H-1B worker creates demand for an additional three to five American workers by enabling the creation of new products and spurring innovation. In addition, utilizing H-1B’s allows companies to finish ongoing projects in need of immediate attention and contribute to the positive impact of technology on the U.S. economy. Finally, they contend the reports of systematic underpayment and fraud in the program have proven to be false claims.

Critics of the H-1B program, however, say Congress should lower the ceiling on the number of H-1B visas granted. They assert now that companies are laying off workers, there’s no reason to import labor. Anti-immigration lobbyists are outraged there even exists a demand for foreign workers as American workers continue to lose jobs. Labor advocates say employers have used the visas merely to import cheaper workers. There are many examples, they challenge, of companies hiring foreign workers even as they eliminated U.S. jobs.

So what’s going to happen? My opinion is the ceiling will level again at around 115,000 quotas per year by 2004. IBI