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High-tech Companies Seek to Hire More Foreign Workers

May 17, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT
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SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Business leaders in Silicon Valley and other high-tech centers say they need more foreign workers to keep America competitive. Microsoft’s chairman Bill Gates made the case before Congress this spring.

BILL GATES, Chairman, Microsoft: Now we face a critical shortage of scientific talent. And there’s only one way to solve that crisis today: open our doors to highly talented scientists and engineers who want to live, work and pay taxes here.

SPENCER MICHELS: The law allows 65,000 specialized workers, ranging from engineers to architects, and even including fashion models, into the U.S. each year, plus another 20,000 graduate degree holders. They, plus some categories like teachers not included in the cap, get what is called an H-1B visa.

With that temporary pass, they can stay and work here for up to six years. Today, there are more than 260,000 H-1B employees in the U.S.

Companies insist they need foreign workers because there are not enough qualified Americans to fill the jobs.

ROBERT HOFFMAN, Oracle Corporation: The Senate and the House have made this issue a high priority.

SPENCER MICHELS: Robert Hoffman is a lobbyist for software maker Oracle, which currently has about 1,850 H-1B employees. He says the company needs software and computer engineers right away.

ROBERT HOFFMAN: Companies like Oracle and Microsoft have hundreds of job openings currently right now. We want to hire the American worker, but if they’re not there, what alternatives do we have? Either we hire the H-1Bs, or if the H-1Bs aren’t available, we’ll have to move work offshore. We’ll move the work where the workers are.

SPENCER MICHELS: According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s Sharon Rummery, the demand this year for H-1B visas was enormous.

SHARON RUMMERY, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: On the very first day that the H-1B visa became available, we received more applications than we had available slots. As it turned out, we got more than 119,000 H-1B visa applications.

SPENCER MICHELS: So what do you do?

SHARON RUMMERY: When that happens, we go to a computer-generated, random selection process.

Securing the best and brightest

Christian Plante
Canadian H-1B Visa Holder
You want to make sure you make it easy for people to come here to the United States, and then you want to make sure that companies have the right means to keep them here.

SPENCER MICHELS: A large coalition of high-tech firms, called Compete America, and co-chaired by Oracle's Hoffman, says the global economy demands a free flow of workers.

ROBERT HOFFMAN: Half, or more than half in some instances, of our graduate students that are pursuing masters and PhDs are foreign-born. Companies like Google, Yahoo, eBay were all founded by immigrants. So what we're trying to do is making sure that we have the very best and the very brightest here in the country innovating and creating jobs.

SPENCER MICHELS: People like Umar Mughal, who lives today with his wife in an apartment in San Jose, he came to America from Pakistan to attend Purdue University in electrical engineering. After graduation, he got a job in Silicon Valley and got married on a visit home.

For the past six years, he's been working in marketing for Altera, a company that makes specialized computer chips and employs about 160 H-1B workers. He has applied for a green card, a work permit for permanent residents, so he can stay here after his visa expires.

UMAR MUGHAL, Pakistani H-1B Visa Holder: I wanted to be in tech. That's what I was passionate about, and I wanted to start working here. The other thing is, once I moved, I really like the lifestyle over here.

SPENCER MICHELS: We talked to Mughal and two other H-1B holders from Canada and India in Altera's cafeteria. All three agreed that, for its own benefit, America needs to encourage, not block, foreign workers. Christian Plante came here from Quebec.

CHRISTIAN PLANTE, Canadian H-1B Visa Holder: The goal is really to snatch talent and keep the talent here because it's going to go somewhere else. It's going to go to China; it's going to go to the European Union. You want to make sure you make it easy for people to come here to the United States, and then you want to make sure that companies have the right means to keep them here.

DEEPAK BOPPANA, Indian H-1B Visa Holder: I think reverse brain drain is, to a certain extent, very real. I've known friends who have gone back to India because of the booming economy there.

A 'money game'

Pete Bennett
Software Developer
It's really a game of two for one. I can get two H-1B visa workers for one American.

SPENCER MICHELS: But software developer and amateur guitar player Pete Bennett doesn't buy any of the arguments to bring in H-1B workers. Bennett, who runs a Web site called "No More H-1B," says he has a hard time finding work, and he blames the H-1B visa program.

PETE BENNETT, Software Developer: It's really a game of two for one. I can get two H-1B visa workers for one American. Many of the U.S. workers that were displaced are in the higher wage category. This is a money game; this is about big money.

SPENCER MICHELS: The workers we met at Altera said they were paid equally with Americans, but a recent survey from the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think-tank, found that more than half of new H-1B high-tech employees were paid below the starting salary of an entry-level computer scientist.

The Department of Labor says that, under the law, companies where foreigners make up at least 15 percent of the workforce must attest that they've tried to hire Americans first. But most companies hire fewer foreigners than that, and they have no such requirement. They simply have to post internally their intention to hire a foreigner.

For those companies, a Labor Department document states, "H-1B workers may be hired even when a qualified U.S. worker wants the job, and a U.S. worker can be displaced from the job in favor of the foreign worker." That's a fact that frustrates these American high-tech professionals who are out of work.

Laid off Americans

SPENCER MICHELS: After being laid off, Andre Levy spent two-and-a-half years getting a master's degree to be more competitive. He's been looking for a job for more than a year.

ANDRE LEVY, American Citizen: I have a degree from a world-class university here in the bay. I have a master's degree from a pretty darn good university. I am not sure exactly what else I can do.

SPENCER MICHELS: He says he knows H-1Bs generally get paid less, because when he was a manager, he hired them.

ANDRE LEVY: It was a cost issue. I mean, they were cheaper because they were short-term. We didn't pay benefits or any of that sort of stuff. We had a number of folks from Russia, as well. They were willing to live four in a two-bedroom apartment.

SPENCER MICHELS: Kim Doty was laid off in January.

KIM DOTY, American Citizen: Not only are some of my jobs being outsourced, but when I look at other positions, I'm being told that I'm too qualified to take some of those roles. And a lot of it, I think, has to do with my salary, at this point demanding a lot higher salary than what they're looking at.

SPENCER MICHELS: Foreign workers also come with the skills industry wants now. And American workers say they need retraining to stay competitive.

But training funds have been cut, says the director of this job center in Silicon Valley. Companies pay the government $1,000 for each H-1B worker they hire, money to be used for job training. But much of it has been diverted out of Silicon Valley to poorer communities, says Mike Curran.

MIKE CURRAN, North Valley Job Training Consortium: So what we used to have was millions of dollars of training six or seven years ago, because the H-1B created a pool for that, and we could take existing workers here and give them new networks, and new technologies, and new access to new training, has evaporated. All of that money has been taken off of the table.

Congress debates H-1B visas

Sen. Dick Durbin
(D) Illinois
We need to really put this back on track. And the first rule ought to be very simple: American workers take the jobs first.

SPENCER MICHELS: The H-1B debate is playing out in Congress right now as an important element in the broader immigration discussions. President Bush recently called on Congress to raise the cap. Republican Senator John Cornyn has been leading efforts in the Senate to get more H-1B visas.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), Texas: There's been a lot of misunderstanding and some suggestion that you're actually bringing in foreign workers, paying them less, and putting Americans out of jobs. That's not the case. This is to supplement really our lack of qualified people in some of these high-skilled areas.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), Illinois: There are some who say, "Well, clearly, we need more H-1B visas." I disagree with that completely.

SPENCER MICHELS: On the other side, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin fears that foreigners will return to their own countries armed with technology learned here and compete with American companies.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: The system is clearly being abused. We need to really put this back on track. And the first rule ought to be very simple: American workers take the jobs first.

SPENCER MICHELS: As Congress continues to wrangle over immigration, the H-1B visa controversy is expected to remain a major issue in the debate.

JIM LEHRER: The Senate deal on immigration reached today would raise the cap on H-1B visas to 115,000, which is nearly double the current number allowed, and it would open the door to future increases.