by Stephanie Overby

The Great H-1B Debate: Where Are All the CIOs?

Oct 29, 20076 mins
IT Leadership

There’s one thing that opponents in the H-1B visa debate actually agree on: the U.S. system for granting these and other non-immigrant visas to foreign workers is broken. Yet getting a (non tech-vendor) CIO to say anything substantive on the subject is harder than trying to coax an errant syllable from a mime outside the Louvre.

More on that last bit later. But first, that (sort of) meeting of the minds…

In a recent BusinessWeek column, “The Visa Shortage: Big Problem, Easy Fix,” Vivek Wadhwa describes the scene at a Duke University career fair: “Signs with the words ‘U.S. citizens and permanents only’ greeted students at employers’ booths… Foreign-born engineering graduates told me they were disappointed that employers like General Electric (GE), IBM (IBM), and Carmax (KMX) as well as smaller companies would not even interview them. Recruiters told me they were frustrated that they could not fill critical positions.” There are significantly more foreign-born students than Americans completing higher degrees in engineering, according to the BusinessWeek column, but many find it difficult to stay on in the U.S. to work. America’s high-tech employers are in trouble, writes Wadhwa. There just aren’t enough H-1B visas to go around. (Currently, the annual cap on H-1B visas is 85,000, with 20,000 exemptions set aside for foreign students who receive degrees from U.S. schools.) A former tech CEO who is now a Wertheim Fellow at the Harvard Law School and executive in residence at Duke, Wadhwa says the scene at his school is evidence of a “broken system” that’s driving the best-educated foreign workers to Europe, India, and China. But there’s a simple fix, he says: “… increase the number of visas that are available for international students who

get job offers from U.S. companies. An even better solution is to offer these students permanent-resident visas rather than H-1Bs. In the new global landscape, we need the world’s best talent on our side.”

Last month, Dr. Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California, Davis known for his opposition to the increased placement of foreign workers in U.S. IT jobs, weighed in with a 25-page research paper examining the effects of the H-1B visa and employee-sponsored green card systems. (A side note: the report does a good job of clarifying the difference between the two.) His conclusion? You guessed it: the system is “broken.” Matloff lays out a plethora of problems from widespread abuse and fraud (which Wadhwa also alluded to in his column) that he says are enabled by loopholes to the “de facto indentured servitude” he says the H-1B visa can enable. Matloff also attempts to debunk what he sees as the talent shortage myth. When there’s a talent crunch, Matloff argues, one tends to see a surge in salaries. Yet his data shows that pay for new graduates in computer science and engineering has been dropping since 2001. “The constant cry of the industry lobbyists that the tech industry cannot find qualified workers is clearly false,” Matloff writes. He offers his own suggestions for H-1B reform, including moving to a single-level prevailing wage instead of the four-level scale that exists now, defining the prevailing wage based on the qualifications of the worker instead of the job, extending the rules for H-1B dependent companies (e.g. giving hiring priority to U.S. workers and no hiring of H-1Bs within 90 days of a layoff) to any company hiring H-1B workers, and cleaning up the green card certification process.

Now, if put in a

room together, Matloff and Wadhwa could probably argue the numbers and other relative merits of their positions for hours on end. And they’re not even as far apart as many opponents in the H-1B debate. (For a real knock-down drag-out between groups diametrically opposed on the foreign tech worker issue, check out the Programmers Guild’s 21-page rebuttal to a letter sent by the IEEE-USA and the Semiconductor Industry Association requesting that Congress raise the cap on green cards for foreign tech workers and create exemptions for foreign professionals with advanced science, technology, engineering and math degrees.)

The thing is, individuals on both sides on the H-1B issue have solid points. Surely, as Wadhwa says, we do want to welcome the very best and brightest minds, wherever they were born, to the U.S. to stay. But, if we’re being honest, the H-1B visa system as implemented isn’t really a tool for attracting the best and brightest, as Matloff intimates

with his analysis of U.S. IT salary data.

But what I really want to know is: where are all the CIOs on this issue? Not the tech-industry titans out in front with their D.C. lobbying efforts, but the honest-to-goodness enterprise IT leader. If they have any thoughts about increasing or decreasing the number of H-1B visas or green cards being doled out, they’re doing a good job of keeping them hidden. From time to time, I talk to an IT leader with strong bias against outsourcing or offshoring generally, but not the H-1B visa or green card issue specifically (although they very well may have such feelings). And I’ve never had a CIO tell me that that disappointing project last year could have been a success… if only

they’d had access to more H-1B visas (although that very well could be the case).

I think I understand the silence. The typical IT leader (read: one that doesn’t work at Microsoft, Intel, GE or the like) is in an uncomfortable position. They may see the value in H-1B visas or sponsored green cards, but they don’t want to say anything to upset or worry their American IT employees. Or, maybe they feel strongly that the cap on such foreign worker programs is way too liberal, but they don’t want to ruffle the feathers

of their vendors. Maybe its career suicide to even consider discussing such a politically charged issue at all.

Whatever the reasons, the net result is that most IT leaders are sitting on the sidelines as this issue is decided by others, namely tech industry lobbyists and politicians. And don’t be fooled. An immigration bill that would have raised the H-1B cap went nowhere earlier this year, but there’s still a lot of lobbying going on. Last week, a group of 16 Congressional Democrats requested that the House take action this year “to resolve the immediate talent crisis that is facing U.S. employers” by aligning the supply of H-1B visas and employment-based green cards “with the needs of U.S. employers.”

Hey, I’d love to be proven wrong on this one. Maybe there are IT leaders more than willing to share their honest opinions on the record about the foreign IT worker issue. If I had any kind of a budget (and it weren’t entirely unethical), I’d offer a reward. Instead, I can only make a direct appeal.

CIOs — where are you?