Senate action could ease entry rule, help job squeeze

Area high tech executives received some potentially good news late last month when the U.S. House of Representatives voted to extend the number of immigration visas it will allow over the next three years. That means software firms and other technology-dependent companies might be able to hire more workers with coveted computer engineering and software skills.

The Senate must still vote on the legislation, however. No vote had been taken as of last Tuesday.

“There is a shortfall of IT professionals to the tune of 750,000 peopleper year, and that shortfall, according to the GartnerGroup, is supposed to go over one million after the year 2000,” said Bradley J. Waugh, a regional vice president with CBSI and president of the Rhode Island Software Association.

“The IT sector is the largest growing sector in business today. (People are needed) not only to make software, it’s also people to run banks and everything.

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“U.S. colleges and universities are not producing enough people,” Waugh said. “The Indian universities produce in the thousands. It would be >foolish for the U.S. economy not to take advantage of those professionals; they do not hurt the economy, they enhance it.”

There has been a shortage of workers with top level computer skills for several years, and as a result some companies in the United States have been recruiting in countries such as India, China and Russia, which regularly produce thousands of college graduates with the needed skills.

Though the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service allows businesses here to hire workers with specialized skills, there is a cap on the number of workers who can receive employment visas. Under INS rules high tech workers, some medical professionals and models are among those who can qualify for these visas.

Capped in May
INS stopped granting H-1B visas to foreign workers in May this year, because the annual cap of 65,000 visas had already been reached.

Some local executives anticipate that high tech companies will flood the INS with more visa applications than it can handle within the first 30 days of 1999, Waugh said. At CBSI there is a department devoted to helping foreign workers with paperwork and to get acclimated to life in a new country, according to Waugh.

“We work on it every day, so we’re all geared up and ready to go (when the INS begins accepting visa applications again),” he said. “It’s not cheap but you’ve got to do it.”

“As a short term solution to job shortages, I think it’s a great idea,” said Connecticut Technology Council spokesman Steve Clement, of the proposed legislation. With 145 members, CTC is one of that state’s largest technology associations.

“This is a very appropriate response. To be honest it keeps jobs in the U.S., it doesn’t matter if they’re foreigners living in Rhode Island or Massachusetts; they’re living in Rhode Island paying Rhode Island taxes,” Clement said.

Bringing foreign workers to the states also helps some companies that might otherwise set up shop in another country, just to have access to qualified workers, said Clement, adding that some CTC members have had to do just that.

“It’s actually easier for them to open a new plant over there, than here. That’s disappointing.”

For U.S. workers who fear jobs going to foreign workers, however, some high tech executives indicate that there isn’t really any danger of that.

“I don’t think we’re in any danger of running out of jobs. I do think the colleges and universities have to do a better job of providing American students with skills,” Clement said.

“These people not only add to the companies that are currently existing in the United States, they also start up new companies,” added Waugh, of CBSI’s Providence office. “To me there’s no lose here, I just don’t see it.”

Waugh cited the example of skilled foreign workers helping build up the American manufacturing industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a similar situation. “Without that the United States wouldn’t have built up as quickly as we did,” he said.

The Workforce Improvement and Protection Act of 1998 proposes amending federal law to “temporarily increase the annual number of skilled foreign worker H-1B visas,” according to a summary of the bill. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, is the bill’s major sponsor.

The House of Representatives passed the bill by a 288-133 vote on Sept. 24. Robert W. Weygand and Patrick Kennedy, Rhode Island’s two Congressional delegates both voted in favor of the legislation.

“A temporary increase in foreign workers fills the gap while our free market economy works to bring American workers up to speed. The U.S. labor market is adjusting, as it should, to the large demand for high tech workers,” Kennedy said in a statement issued by his office last week. But, he added, “we must not tilt the market balance unfairly against U.S. workers by guaranteeing employera the right to draw from a pool of foreign workers indefinitely.”

In California, where numerous Silicon Valley companies are watching the bill closely, only 15 of the state’s 52 congressional delegates voted against the bill, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

The Times also reported that the legislation would allow an additional 142,500 workers to come to the United States over the course of the next three years, then return to the existing 65,000 cap on H-1B visas in the fourth year.

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