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Friday, March 31, 2006

Visa Problems

There's an interesting article with both pro's and con's of the H-1B (professional workers) Visa program in today's Post. I'd call it a good article, except it skips a big piece of information that would probably help a lot of folks understand the program.

First off, if you want to cherry pick data to support your point of view, "Most See Visa Program as Severely Flawed" is a good place to start. They provide three of four sets of conflicting statistics on wages for programmers and engineers, each gotten by a group wishing to advance their own immigration or business agenda.

What the article missed, though was the pure numbers involved in the fields, and why we issue the visas in the first place. Engineering is a good place to look at that information, because it's a field the US is rapidly falling behind Asia in.

Right now, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 1.4 million filled engineering jobs in the US. In 2005 colleges and universities here only graduated 60,000 engineers according to data from the University of Pittsburgh. That number is down from 75,000 in 1985, and is where the problem occurs.

Again, using BLS numbers, overall engineering jobs in the US are expected to grow faster than average over the next 10 years, that comes out to be between 1.8 and 2.6% growth each year. If growth were the only worry, a 4.2% graduation rate to current jobs would cause a depressed market.

However, growth isn't the only consideration when looking at those numbers, attrition is the other. In 2004 NASA had 3 times as many engineers over 60 as it does under 30, and expected 19,000 of them to retire by 2009.

What that means is that job growth (figuring 2%), and the attrition of one federal agency will eat up over half of all graduates each year. Consider that companies like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing are all in the same situation, it shouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out we aren't graduating enough engineers to fill the jobs.

That's where the visa programs come into play. Right now there are a total of 65,000 H-1B slots available each year, usually by December every one of them has a request in for it. H-1B's though aren't just for engineers, they are for other "professional" jobs such as doctors, nurses, etc. (I pointed this out in this earlier article.) So the H-1B program probably still isn't bringing in enough engineers to fill the openings.

For working engineers it's a good thing, since it keeps wages higher than normal because of competition for jobs. My current employer pays a $3,000 bonus to any employee who refers a qualified engineer who gets hired, because of that competition. It's also good for new graduates, who can expect a higher wage than they'd get if there wasn't as much competition.

What about the companies that employ the engineers? At some point a cost benefit analysis will probably show that some of their work can be sent out of the US and done enough cheaper to start making that option more attractive. Certain fields won't be able to because of government contracts, etc. but many can and already are.

In the long run, limiting the numbers of workers that can be imported in certain fields may end up being a (much) bigger detractor to the economy than actually bringing in enough (legally) to do the jobs. Remember, workers under any of the current visa programs pay all US taxes, and for the H-1B people who are here for up to 6 years, they are probably spending more of their money in US than the folks on seasonal visas.

More on the immigration debate here.
Tracked back at Blue Star Chronicles and Don Surber.
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Blogger Assorted Babble by Suzie said...

I haven't EVEN thought of this end of the problem. Excellent post...very informative. Humm it sure makes you stop and think.

1:10 PM  
Blogger James B. said...

While I agree we need to train more engineers, there is also a lot of gaming of the H1B system to take advantage of being able to get educated imported workers on the cheap.

I have worked in software for about 10 years now, and I don't know how many times I have seen ridiculous, inaccurate and overly strict requirements for jobs, and then the firms complain that they can't get qualified workers. In reality they could find dozens of workers, spend two weeks bringing them up to speed, and then put them to work.

11:43 PM  
Blogger Crazy Politico said...

Thanks Suzie.

James, just based on numbers, and availability dates I think that the problem you describe happens, but is less prevalent than many think.

For instance, the FY 2007 H-1B application season starts Monday. By July 1st all 65,000 will be spoken for.

Considering just in California Monster has over 3,000 job listings for Java and C++ programming, Washington DC metro over 500, Illinois over 400. It's hard to believe they are all, or even a majority of them going to go to H-1B folks. Some will, some employers will abuse it.

And, with 1.2 million employed software engineers/programmers in 2005, it would be foolish to think that their cut of the H-1B program would fill all vacancies.

3:52 AM  
Blogger James B. said...

Well of course. If you had a choice between spending months recruiting and training a US based engineer who you had to pay $60K and could leave at any time, and being able to pick and choose among millions of foreign engineers who would be happy to work at half that rate, and could not leave your company for fear of being deported, which would you choose?

We should just increase the quota for immigration of skilled workers, rather than importing what essentially are indentured servents.

11:27 AM  

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