H-1B Visas Don't Need to Be Capped, They Need to Be Eliminated

We don't need "guest workers," we need to work with the resources we have. Here's how to kill H-1B visas and still get the technology workers we need.

Want to get tech workers and tech employers riled? Bring up the topic of H-1B visas—the program that currently permits 65,000 "guest workers" with a bachelors degree or equivalent, in specialty occupations ranging from architecture to engineering to computer science to fashion modeling, to work in America.

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Each spring, execs like Bill Gates trek to Congress to plead their case to raise the visa cap to 130,000 visas. Why? Because according to Gates—and others—there are not enough tech workers in America with the 21st-century tech skills needed by employers.

On the other side of the debate, labor unions and college professors argue that there are plenty of skilled, unemployed tech workers in America, but employers would opt to hire cheap, foreign labor through visa programs like H-1B.

Who's right? Both are.

Data from CIO magazine research over the last 5 years suggests strongly that CIOs have found it progressively harder to find qualified IT execs with the right skills they need. That's a point for Bill.

On the other hand, conversations I have had with scores unemployed, skilled tech workers—workers who claim to have lost their job to H-1B visa workers who are paid less than American workers—convinces me there also is validity to their argument.

So, who's to blame for this lose-lose situation? As a country, we are.

Check out "A Nation at Risk." What you will find is a seminal report on the state of our nation's education system written in 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president. The result of 18 months of study, the report's opening comments set the table for the biggest challenge America continues to face in the 21st century: "Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world...the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people."

Who needs Tom Friedman to tell us the world is flat!

"A Nation at Risk" was written 25 years ago, and our nation's continued laissez-faire acceptance of an education system—particularly in the tech-skills area—committed to mediocrity is the reason we have programs like H-1B visas.

A visa program that I believe should be cut in half immediately and phased out by 2014. Here's my rationale.

India, with 1.1 billion citizens, and China with 1.2 billion citizens, will always produce more science, engineering and math undergraduates than the U.S. with 300 million people.

But the following stat shows how far behind these countries the U.S. is. In America, on average, one undergraduate degree is awarded for science, engineering or math for every 5,000th citizen. In India and China—two countries with significantly more people—a degree is conferred in those subject areas for every 2,500th citizen.

So a modest goal for America might be to first match that 2,500th degree number, to correspond to India and China.

If we did that, guess what? Our education system would produce 130,000 tech undergraduates each year—exactly the number to which Gates and friends are pleading with Congress to raise the H-1B visa cap.

This is, however, an incredible opportunity for America to systemically change how it teaches overall—and specifically how we teach science, technology, engineering and math.

Between today and 2016, our education system will need to recruit 2.8 million new teachers. We must put a premium on recruiting the best and brightest to teach science and math, and we must replicate programs like IBM's "Transition to Teaching," in which they recruit and place workers with math and science undergraduate degrees into America's classrooms.

To compete in the 21st century and beyond, America must make it a national priority to overhaul our nation's acceptance of a mediocre education system.

The H-1B visa program is a small, tactical, short-term remedy for a national disease.

The sooner we do away with it, the sooner our nation will get on with building a world-class education system.

It won't be easy and it won't be without pain, but we need to start somewhere. Take a look at the video to see how.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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