Harrop: H-1B visas filling need for workers that isn’t there

What they are doing is helping the tech industry replace U.S. workers with cheaper foreign labor.

By Froma Harrop

Syndicated columnist

Americans don’t usually think of technical professionals as “guest workers,” yet at any one time, there are more than a half-million foreigners holding tech jobs in the U.S. They are here thanks to the H-1B visa program. H-1B, so the official spiel goes, addresses an alleged shortage of “highly skilled” Americans to fill jobs “requiring specialized knowledge.”

Growing evidence, however, points to companies’ using the program to replace perfectly qualified American workers with cheaper ones from elsewhere. A new report published by the Atlantic Council documents the abuses. The authors are Ron Hira, a political scientist at Howard University, and Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

Among their criticisms:

• Virtually any white-collar job can be taken by an H-1B visa holder. About 70 percent of them are held not by what we consider tech workers but by teachers, accountants and salespeople, among others.

(Denver Public Schools employs teachers on H-1B visas. During a strike, the district actually threatened to report participating foreigners to immigration authorities. It later apologized.)

“By every objective measure,” Hira and Gopalaswamy write, “most H-1B workers have no more than ordinary skills, skills that are abundantly available in the U.S. labor market.”

U.S. colleges graduate 50 percent more students in engineering and in computer and information science than are hired in those fields every year, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute.

• Employers don’t have to show they have a labor shortage to apply. They don’t even have to try recruiting an American to fill the job.

Cutting labor costs is clearly the paramount “need.” In Silicon Valley, computer systems analysts make on average just over $116,000 a year. But companies can hire H-1B workers at a lower skill level, paying them only about $77,000 a year to do the same work, the report says.

And it’s not unheard-of for companies to ask American workers to train the H-1B workers taking their jobs. “60 Minutes” featured Robert Harrison, a senior telecom engineer at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center. Asked whether training his replacement felt like digging his own grave, Harrison responded:

“It feels worse than that. It feels like not only am I digging the grave but I’m getting ready to stab myself in the gut and fall into the grave.”

Why does this program continue without serious reform? Mainly because its big boosters include such marquee tech names as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg and Eric Schmidt. Big Tech has showered think tanks with funding to brainwash Americans into believing that their country is starving for tech expertise.

Are there rare tech skills that justify companies’ looking abroad? There are, but that’s the purpose of the O-1 visa. About 10,000 are granted each year to individuals with “extraordinary ability or achievement.”

I asked Hira whether we need H-1B at all.

“I think there’s a place for the H-1B program,” he responded. “The O-1 is a cumbersome process that requires a lot of paperwork, both in preparation and review. But we need to raise the standards of the H-1B program so that the quality and skills of the workers are much higher.”

Also, we should substantially raise the wages paid to H-1B workers and make employers show that they tried to recruit Americans and offered them positions. Other guest-worker and green-card programs have that requirement.

Finally, put in force an effective means of enforcement. Right now, compliance is driven by whistleblowing. A random auditing system would far more efficiently find abuses.

Apparently, the argument that “tech jobs need filling” has, in many cases, oozed to “we want cheaper foreigners.” The H-1B program demands a major overhaul.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at fharrop@gmail.com.

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