Immigration overhaul raises job market issues

Would immigration overhaul increase the number of guest workers in the IT field? And at what cost to Americans?

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The debate on how wide the nation's borders will open for future immigrants has sparked a discussion about what comes next for America's tech industry.

The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate in April by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., proposes a sweeping overhaul of immigration laws that will expand provisional immigrant status for eligible non-Americans, provide permanent-resident status to eligible foreigners who graduate from American universities and, of particular interest to the tech industry, increase the number of guest workers permitted to work in the country under H-1B visas.

The H-1B is a special classification of visa that allows employers to hire non-immigrant workers on a temporary basis to fill positions in specialty occupations that require a bachelor's degree or its equivalent, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

While overseas talent is particularly attractive for an industry built on worldwide connectivity, whether the overhaul is a good thing depends on who is being asked.

The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that studies issues surrounding low- and middle-income workers, released a report in April questioning whether increasing guest workers will put American IT workers at a disadvantage.

The report, "Guestworkers in the High-Skill U.S. Labor Market," calculates that the bill would boost the number of guest workers with H1-B visas from 65,000 per year to anywhere between 115,000 and 180,000 per year, and would up the number of H1-Bs given to foreign graduates of American universities to 25,000.

Using data showing that one-third of approximately 483,000 IT job openings available in 2011 were filled by guest workers, the authors said the 220,000 new guest workers could take up nearly half of the nation's IT jobs that require advanced degrees.

Daniel Costa, EPI's director of immigration law and policy research, said the bill would perpetuate a system that allows tech companies to hire H-1B workers at lower wages to the detriment of high-skilled American workers who could fill the jobs.

He said a study by the Government Accountability Office showed that 83 percent of H-1B recipients were being hired at below-average wages. He also cited a section of the study that said the nation graduates 50 percent more science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students than are hired into those fields each year, and that 32 percent of graduates who don't enter STEM fields say its because jobs are unavailable.

"The argument by the tech industry has been that more H-1Bs are needed to bring in the best and brightest workers and they can't be found in the U.S. But if that's so, either the best and brightest are coming in at entry-level wages, or they are really bringing in entry-level workers," he said.

Neil G. Ruiz, a senior policy analyst and associate fellow at the Brookings Institution, another D.C.-based policy organization, disputed EPI's findings in a study he coauthored about the bill.

The study, "H-1B Visas and the STEM Shortage," finds that H-1B workers earn more than their American counterparts in 17 of 20 STEM occupations, that employers request H-1B workers for jobs that are difficult to fill and that wages are increasing in occupations with the most H-1B requests.

So which of the two opposing studies are correct?

According to Russ Harrison, senior legal representative of the D.C.-based technical professional organization Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA, each study has its merits and faults.

In the Brookings study, he said, the report's first draft included a glitch that omitted some important data. He also said breaking down wage data according to age rather than actual position allowed companies to hide the practice of replacing older American workers with low-paid H-1B workers.

He added that broad job classifications such as "computer occupationist" don't give a clear idea of how much employees make and could have artificially lowered wages for those on the higher end of the pay scale.

However, he agreed with the report's assessment that companies seeking to fill high-skilled positions have to search the United States and beyond.

"The biggest pool of people -- basic engineers, computer programmers, designers -- are doing incremental, high-skilled but routine kinds of work. There's no shortage there. But they have a much smaller pool of truly innovative people; people who can tweak a chip to make it a little better or create a chip that revolutionizes the industry. We can't ever have a shortage of those people," said Mr. Harrison.

Sean McDonald, president and CEO of South Side-based life science company Precision Therapeutics, agreed. He said there's no problem finding American candidates for positions requiring bachelor's- or master's-level education, but filling the job that requires a doctorate in biostatistics isn't such an easy proposition using only Americans.

"If I'm a native-born American and I have a master's of engineering [degree] I could go out and have a lot of job opportunities. ... [But] a lot of the Ph.D programs in the hard sciences are filled with people that are not native-born Americans," he said.

However, Mr. Harrison said, the nation's larger companies could do a much better job than what is currently being done to hire American workers. He said an analysis of H-1B visas approved in Pennsylvania last year shows that 63 percent of all visas approved went to 17 companies and all of those companies used the visas to replace American workers in some capacity. In Pittsburgh, 16 companies received 65 percent of all approved H-1Bs.

Audrey Russo, president of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, said the organization supports the bill largely because of its expansions for education and employment-based visas.

Mr. Harrison said the engineers group also supports the bill, and applauds provisions to fund American STEM education, pay H-1B workers prevailing wages, prevent companies from using H-1B visas primarily for offshore positions and require companies to attempt to hire Americans before using H-1B visas.

However, he said everything the bill aims to accomplish for the tech sector can be done without expanding the H-1B program.

"The business community makes an argument that says they don't have enough workers, but they don't want to give out more green cards," Mr. Harrison said. "It's perplexing to us why the business community is shouting over H-1Bs when they have a much better option."

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Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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