Tech Companies Want More Foreign STEM Workers

Officials at tech companies say that 65,000 annual work visas are not enough.

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As U.S. firms struggle to find enough workers in STEM fields to fill job vacancies, many have turned to H-1B visas—a program that allows 65,000 highly talented foreign nationals per year to work in the United States for up to six years. While critics say that these immigrants are taking American jobs, some U.S. corporations are asking the Obama administration to raise the cap, which is usually hit early in the year.

"We need to accept the fact that we're global," says Donagh Herlihy, senior vice president and CIO of Avon Products, a cosmetics manufacturer that employs more than 42,000 workers, approximately 6,200 in the United States. "It's better to bring people in from overseas and to have them doing the work here and paying taxes to the U.S. rather than having them overseas and paying taxes somewhere else."

Critics have said that bringing in foreign workers is bad policy—that foreign nationals are paid less than market wage and displace American workers. There's mixed data on the subject—U.S. law requires employers to pay H-1B workers the same as or more than similarly qualified American workers, but a 2005 report by the Center for Immigration Studies found that computer programmers in the United States on H-1B visas were being paid on average $13,000 less than Americans in the same occupations.

A March report by the National Foundation for American Policy found that U.S. employers have spent some $3 billion in mandatory application fees since 2000 to bring over foreigners on H-1B employment visas, hardly a cheap expense, and foreign nationals are often paid much more in the United States than they would make in their home countries.

Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, says that the United States has some of the highest wages for STEM workers, so the country could be at a competitive advantage if it decides to raise the cap.

"We will have the upper hand on wages over the next 40 years. For a while, we'll be at a competitive advantage in the global market," he says. "In the future, we'll continue to be dependent on foreign-born STEM workers."

Meanwhile, tech companies such as Microsoft are sitting on nearly 5,000 unfilled positions, and companies such as Intel are forced to keep important workers overseas. An Intel official told told Reuters that the company wanted to bring nearly 50 Finnish engineers to work near the company's headquarters in California, but it wasn't able to because the H-1B visa cap had been reached months before. The company decided to open a new research and development center for the engineers in Helsinki.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce late last month that capping the number of H-1B visas was "terrible public policy" and contributed to America's plunge into recession.

"Turning these students out of the country is, to put it bluntly, about the dumbest thing that we could possibly do," he said. "There is no such thing as too many engineers, too many scientists, or too many technological innovators. We need all of them in this country.

"Temporary visas like the H-1B program help fill critical gaps in our workforce, but the numbers are too few and the filing process too long and unpredictable," he said. "This leads to critical shortfalls not only in the software industry, but also in fields like engineering, electronics, pharmaceuticals, medical research, and aerospace. This is just absurd to deny American companies access to the workers they need."

As for American-born engineers? There are and will still be plenty of jobs for them, says Susan Lavrakas, director of workforce with the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group that represents more than 350 aerospace engineering companies.

She says that many of the jobs in the industry require security clearances that are, for the most part, available only to U.S. citizens.

"These are jobs that can't be shifted to foreign nationals," she says.

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