Our view of H-1B visas

It was one of the hottest topics earlier this year, but just last month CIO.com listed H-1B “panic” as one of the outsourcing trends that was cooling down.

Panic on the part of IT leaders was not entirely unfounded. It began in April, when President Donald Trump signed an executive order calling for restructuring the temporary skilled labor program.

That EO followed a late March memo from the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) that said an H-1B petition for a computer programmer should be approved only if the H-1B employer provides sufficient evidence to show the job duties meet the requirements of a specialty occupation.

It was an about-face from 17 years of policy where computer programming was automatically deemed a specialty occupation for the purpose of granting H-1B visas. So panic, at least a little, ensued.

Since you’ve read this far, you probably know that the H-1B visa program allows companies in the US to temporarily employ foreign workers in occupations that require highly specialized knowledge, along with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Information technology has been one of those occupations since the program was launched in 1990.

The H-1B program has always had its opponents, people who claim the program holds down wages because companies use it to bring in foreign workers at entry-level wages. In other words, they’re saying H-1B visas are not going to workers with truly specialized skills.

This is a view held by the President, who said in a statement during the 2016 campaign, "The H-1B program is neither high skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay." LRS Consulting Services respectfully disagrees.

We know, for example, that IT staffing firms do not replace US citizens with H-1B workers. It is not our business model to do so and we strongly oppose the practice. Our industry association, TechServe Alliance, also opposes this practice. Strongly.

We also know that these workers are well paid, with an average compensation of $92,317 throughout all H-1B petitions in the first half of 2017.

Perhaps most importantly, we know these workers have skills which are in critically short supply. The skills gap hasn’t been closed yet, and IT projects have been delayed, or worse, outsourced offshore simply because Americans with the necessary skills were simply unavailable.

A key part of the  long-term solution to  the skills gap is more funding for STEM education, but that’s not a quick fix. Without ongoing access to H-1B visa program in the near and mid-term, we can easily foresee more offshoring of complete IT projects---hurting U.S. IT workers who would otherwise be part of the project team as well as damaging our economy.

We’re not naïve; we know there are abuses of the program. To curb abuse, though, we advocate stronger enforcement of the existing rules instead of indiscriminately restricting or barring access  to the program.

While the actions and rhetoric of policy makers in Washington is an ongoing cause for concern (even if not a full blown panic), we are somewhat comforted by a bloomberg.com article quoting a USCIS report indicating it had received 300,000 H-1B visa petitions and extensions so far this year, compared with a total of 399,349 in all of 2016. While it is a less hospitable H-1B environment, it has not stopped most who work or want to work in the U.S. from pursuing the opportunity.

While reasonable people can debate the exact level of H-1B visas, what is beyond question is that talented people possessing high demand IT skills sets continue to be needed in the United States. The H-1B program remains a critical source of that talent both now and for the foreseeable future.