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

In the immigration debate, its tech versus academics

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H-1B visa holders earn 5% to 10% less than U.S. citizens with comparable skills, and the H-1B program shifts hiring to younger workers, displacing older professionals, 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 -- in which high-tech companies were accused of agreeing not hire key employees from one another -- as evidence that tech companies want to keep employees from leaving their jobs.

H-1B workers are attractive to tech companies for that reason -- because it's difficult for those 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, a tech employer may favor hiring a visa holder.

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

Teitelbaum said that, since World War II, the U.S. has gone through five cycles where alarms were sounded about shortages of scientists and engineers. The government typically responds by increasing the supply either with visas or through education, he said, "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 said "we may be in the process of repeating it."

Teitelbaum presents the results of his research is in his new book, Falling Behind, Boom, Bust and the Global Race for Scientific Talent. In it, he writes 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."

"This apparently broad consensus prevails notwithstanding almost universal inability by objective labor market analysts to find any convincing empirical evidence to confirm the existence of such generalized shortages," Teitelbaum writes in the book.

Matloff said the real problem with the H-1B program is that the visas are used to hire young people instead of older IT professionals -- and he defines "older" IT workers as anyone over 35.

While most of the focus of the forum was on the H-1B visa, plans that would give fast-track green cards to foreigners who earn advanced degrees in STEM fields were also seen as problematic. Matloff said it would exacerbate the age discrimination issue.

Matloff argued that H-1B workers don't represent the best and brightest, and he said the evidence is in the number of patents issued per capita. Using patents as a yardstick, he said, "in fact, it's the opposite: On average, [visa holders] are slightly below the quality of Americans."

Analysis of per-capita patent production shows that immigrant engineers produce fewer patents than Americans, said Matloff.

Taken together, the lower rate of patenting by foreign engineers and the displacement of American workers caused by the H-1B visa programs "means we have a net loss of innovation ability," said Matloff.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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