IT worker relief in sight

Congress is debating whether to raise the number of H-1B visas awarded to

highly skilled foreign workers each year, a move that supporters say will

help fill essential information technology positions.

The H-1B visa program provides a way for U.S. employers, including government

agencies and contractors who work for agencies, to quickly hire foreign

professionals temporarily. Increasingly, the visas are being used to fill

IT-related positions as the economy becomes more dependent on the high-tech

industry. By 1997, more than half of the visas issued were in IT-related

fields.

Federal contractors use the program for hard-to-fill IT vacancies,

using it to fill key positions and hire talented people.

For example, SRA International Inc. employs about 35 workers — about

2 percent of its total work force — through the H-1B visa program. "It helps

us round out our work force," said Ernst Volgenau, president of SRA International.

However, it barely puts a dent in the overall vacancy rate at the company,

which hovers at around 10 percent.

Volgenau said he would like to see the program expanded. "This country

has benefited from smart immigrants for many, many years," he said.

Some agencies, including the Defense Department, cite security concerns

as the reason for not taking advantage of the program. But agencies benefit

indirectly as outsourcing becomes more prevalent and contractors turn to

foreign workers.

"It's safe to say this is very relevant to the federal government to

the extent they are dealing with any high-tech [issue]," said Suzette Brooks

Masters, an attorney and a member of the board of directors of the National

Immigration Forum. "Their contractors will need the labor, or the work won't

get done. The issue is the same across the country: We don't have enough

people to do the work."

Today's economic expansion and tight labor market has forced the H-1B

visa debate — which traditionally pits industry against supporters of organized

labor — onto center stage. The House of Representatives and the Senate are

considering whether to raise the annual visa limit above the current figure

of 115,000.

A bill introduced this month by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) would raise

this year's cap for H-1B visas by 45,000. The bill would allow for 160,000

foreign workers in 2000 and 107,500 in 2001 and would permit them to stay

in the United States up to six years on the H-1B visa. The increase would

award visas to those workers who late last year were awarded H-1B visas

after the cap had already been reached.

Smith's bill also would increase the visa fee, which is paid by employers,

from $500 to $1,000 per visa. The money would go toward college scholarships

for U.S. students who want to pursue high-tech degrees (see box, Page 27).

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) last month introduced similar legislation

in the Senate. He said the bill would help solve the short- and long-term

IT worker shortage problem facing many companies.

"If Congress fails to act promptly to alleviate today's high-tech labor

shortage, today's low jobless rate will be a mere precursor to tomorrow's

lost opportunities," Hatch said when he introduced the bill.

Hatch's bill would allow Congress to raise the cap on H-1B visas issued

to foreign IT workers from 115,000 to 195,000 during the next three years.

The act also would exempt from the cap people who come to work for universities,

government research centers and nonprofit organizations. Immigrants who

recently received an advanced degree from a U.S. institution also would

be excluded from the cap.

The IT worker shortage is costing the U.S. economy more than $150 billion

per year, said Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), the bill's co-sponsor. If

companies continue to have difficulty filling IT positions, firms will curtail

their economic activities and move businesses abroad. With fewer American

companies performing IT functions and paying for research, it will be increasingly

difficult for agencies to outsource IT projects, he said.

An increase in the cap is necessary because the 1999 cap was reached

six months after it was approved, Abraham said. And under current H-1B law,

the number of visas issued is scheduled to decrease to 65,000 in 2002.

The senators hope to piggyback on the success of the Technology Resources

and Commercial Leadership Act, which raised more than $75 million for high-tech

training last year. The new Senate bill would raise an estimated $375 million

during the next three years to train and educate citizens and provide more

than 50,000 scholarships in math, science or engineering to American students.

Even a congressional decision to raise the visa quota won't solve the

long-term problem of training, said Masters, who co-authored a paper on

H-1B visas published by The Cato Institute. "There is a mismatch in what

industry needs and what schools are putting out," she said.

Ted Ruthizer, co-author of the study and a partner with New York law

firm Robinson Silverman Pearce Aronsohn & Berman, agreed. "[Issuing

visas is] not a panacea," he said. "It's time-consuming, expensive and requires

[extensive] recordkeeping. Companies by and large hire H-1B visa employees

because they need them."

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